Indirect Question vs. Relative Clause


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Example of an Indirect Question: He asked when I would go home. ("when" is here used as an interrogative) Interrogavit quando domum rediturus essem.
Example of a Relative Clause: What is small is beautiful. ("what" is here used as a relative) Quod parvum est pulchrum est.

Because English interrogative words (who, what, which, where...) are also used as relative words, and many Latin interrogatives and relatives are, in fact, the same too (though some differ in Latin that don't in English), some people have trouble telling relative clauses and indirect questions apart. Yet, if you write or speak Latin, it's crucial to know the difference, so as to know when or not to use the subjunctive, and often so as to know when to use the relative qui, quae, quod or the interrogative quis, quid to translate the English "who" or "what" (by the way, if you need a more extensive explanation on the various uses of these words, you can have a look at this thread).

So, I will try here to explain as best I can the difference between relative clause and indirect question.

A relative clause is describing something or someone, often (but not always) mentioned or implied in the main clause (when the something or someone is mentioned, it is called "antecedent"), whereas an indirect question represents a question (not directly asked in the form of a direct-speech quotation, but generally dependent on some other word stated or implied like a verb, adjective, or noun) which someone does or does not know the answer to, is wondering about, is asking, is saying the answer to, or the like. One may say that an indirect question denotes roughly the idea of either "the question of (who/what/where/etc.)" or "the answer to the question of (who/what/where/etc.)"

Indirect Questions:

Here are examples of indirect questions (the indirect questions are underlined):

1) He asked me what I was doing ---> the direct question was "What are you doing?", and we're here reporting this question in indirect form, saying, "He asked me what I was doing", which may be said to mean "He asked me the question of what I was doing". (This would of course be a pretty roundabout way to speak in real life, but I only mean here to find a way to illustrate as best I can the nature of the indirect question, so that, hopefully, the difference between indirect question and relative clause may be made clear little by little in this post.) We aren't considering here the thing itself, "that which I was doing", but the whole question of what I was doing. In Latin, it would be: Me interrogavit quid facerem.

2) I know where he is going ---> the direct question would be "Where is he going?", but it is here expressed in indirect form. I am here basically saying that I know the answer to that question: "I know the answer to the question of where he is going." We are considering the whole question of where he is going, not the place itself as we would in "I know the place where he is going". In the latter, "where he is going" is a relative clause describing the place, and it means something a bit different from "I know where he is going". In "I know where he is going", I am considering the question of where he is going, and I am stating that I know the answer to that question, which is different from stating that I know the place itself. In Latin, "I know where he is going" (with indirect question) would be scio quo eat, whereas "I know the place where he is going" (with relative clause) would be novi locum quo it. (I will of course say more later concerning relative clauses.)

3) I wonder who that man is = the direct question would be "Who is that man?", and I'm stating that I wonder as to that question: "I wonder (about) the question of who that man is". In Latin: Miror quis ille homo sit.

4) He told us what he wanted = the direct question would have been "What does he want?" or "What do you want?", and he told us the answer to that. "He told us the answer to the question of what he wanted." In Latin: Dixit nobis quid vellet.

Relative Clauses:

The most obvious kind of relative clause is when there is an explicitly stated antecedent — when the relative "who", "which", etc., represents a word that is physically there in the main clause, as in the following examples, where I have bolded the antecedents, underlined the relative clauses, and italicized the relative words: in every one of these sentences, the relative (italicized) word represents in the relative clause the antecedent (the bolded word) that is in the main clause.

1) I know the place where he is going.
In Latin: Novi locum quo it.

2) Titius, who had sat silent in a corner throughout the dinner, finally opened his mouth.
In Latin: Titius, qui totam per cenam tacitus in angulo sederat, tandem os aperuit.

3) The teacher who taught me philosophy has written a few books.
In Latin: Magister qui me philosophiam docuit aliquot scripsit libros.

4) This ring, which I bought from the best jeweller in Rome, is more beautiful than all yours.
In Latin: Hic anulus, quem ab optimo Romae aurifice emi, pulchrior omnibus tuis est.

You can see that in all of these sentences, the words "where", "who", and "which", introduce clauses that somehow describe their antecedents (the bolded words); those clauses refer to the things or people themselves (the place, Titius, the teacher, the ring), and have nothing to do with questions whatsoever. I.e. for example, "The teacher the question/the answer to the question of who taught me philosophy wrote a few books" doesn't really work; you can feel that the nature of the "who" clause there isn't that of a question, but that it is only meant to describe the teacher — therefore it is a relative clause, not an indirect question.

Whenever you've got a sentence like the ones above, with an antecedent to the "who" or similar word, you can usually be sure that what you've got there is a relative clause and not an indirect question.

There are however cases where it may be a little less immediately obvious to someone who isn't used to telling the difference, because there is no explicitly expressed antecedent; but even in those cases, if you pay attention, it can become clear enough that the nature of the clause isn't that of a question. In everyday modern English, that happens mostly with "what", "where", and "when", when they are used in the senses "that which/the thing(s) which", "(to/in) the place(s) where", and "(at) the time(s) when", and can effectively be replaced by the latter variants without destroying the meaning or altering it too much. (Note that in those variants, the relatives are given antecedents back: "that/the thing(s)", "the place(s)", and "the time(s)" are the antecedents of "which", "where", and "when" respectively.) Take the following examples:

1) What is small is beautiful.

2) I go where you go.

3) When you sing, I am delighted.

In every one of these, the underlined part is a relative clause and not an indirect question. How can you tell that? Because you could change them to "That which is small is beautiful", "I go to the place(s) where you go", and "At the time(s) when you sing, I am delighted". On the other hand, "The question/the answer to the question of what is small is beautiful", "I go to the question/the answer to the question of where you go", "At the question/the answer to the question of when you sing, I am delighted", wouldn't quite work, so they aren't indirect questions. They are not the questions "What is small?", "Where do you go?" and "When do you sing?" reported in an indirect way, but rather clauses describing some thing(s)/place(s)/time(s): they are relative clauses, and may translate into Latin as follows:

1) Quod parvum est, pulchrum est.

2) Eo quo is.

3) Cum canis, delector.

Compare with sentences where the same English words are used as interrogatives in indirect questions:

1) I told you it was big. Do you think I don't know what is small, and what is big? ---> Do you think I don't know the answer to the question of what is small, and the answer to the question of what is big? That if you ask me "What is small?" and "What is big?", I won't know the answer?
In Latin: Dixi tibi magnum fuisse. An putas nescire me quid parvum, quid magnum sit?

2) I ask you where you are going ---> I ask you the question of where you are going.
In Latin: Interrogo te quo eas.

3) He told us when he would sing ---> He told us the answer to the question of when he would sing.
In Latin: Dixit nobis quando esset canturus.

Can you feel the difference?

One last thing: there are a few situations where an indirect question and a relative clause would both be theoretically possible, but there would nonetheless be a difference in nuance; then it's up to you to decide which is most fitting for what you want to say. For example, take the sentence "I know what is small": it is possible to take this either as "I know the answer to the question of what is small; if you ask me "What is small?", I can give you the answer, because I know" — in which case it's an indirect question, and it may translate into Latin as scio quid parvum sit — or as "I know that which is small; I'm acquainted with small things; I know the small things themselves", which is a bit different from being able to tell what things are small. Here, it's a relative clause, and may translate into Latin as novi (ea) quae parva sunt. (N.B. Although the English "what" or "that which" is grammatically singular, it is likely here actually to refer to many things rather than one, and in this context Latin would often tend to use the neuter plural; that is why I have used (ea) quae rather than (id) quod.

So, to recapitulate roughly in one sentence: a relative clause describes or represents the thing (or person, etc.) one is talking about itself, whereas an indirect question represents a question concerning that thing, which is being reported in an indirect way, saying that one is asking or wondering about that question, or does or does not know the answer to it, etc., etc.

I hope this post has been at least a bit helpful. In case you would like to test if you've understood things correctly, here's a little exercise: in each of the following sentences, find whether the underlined clause is a relative clause or an indirect question. You'll find the answers in the spoiler below, as well as examples of Latin translations for each sentence. (You can of course try to translate them yourself, too, but whether you'll be able to translate them all will depend on your level.)

1) I liked what you did yesterday.

2) I'm unsure what you should do.

3) He let me know what the king demanded.

4) It is doubtful who wrote this book.

5) Do you remember the time when we used to play dice together?

6) Those who think so are mistaken.

7) I don't know where I put my keys.

8) I don't remember when that happened.

9) What you're saying is stupid.

10) I'll write to you which of those books I want you to send me.

11) I wish I lived where you live.

12) Julia's poem, which is beautifully written, is definitely worthy of a prize.

1) Relative clause. Mihi placuit quod heri fecisti.

2) Indirect question. Dubito quid te facere oporteat.

3) Indirect question. Certiorem me fecit quid rex postularet.

4) Indirect question. Dubium est quis hunc librum scripserit.

5) Relative clause. Meministine tempus quo alea ludere una solebamus?

6) Relative clause. Qui ita existimant, errant.

7) Indirect question. Nescio ubi claves meas posuerim.

8) Indirect question. Non memini quando illud factum sit.

9) Relative clause. Stultum est quod dicis.

10) Indirect question. Scribam ad te quem istorum mihi librorum mittere te velim.

11) Relative clause. Utinam habitarem ubi habitas.

12) Relative clause. Iuliae carmen, quod pulchre scriptum est, praemio profecto est dignum.