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Here's a sentence I found:

Do you know where the department store is?

What's the purpose of the か particle in 「どこにあるか」? Under what circumstances do I use it?

I'm fairly sure it's not the か that's normally used to form questions, like the second か in that sentence, nor is it the か that means “or.”

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1 Answer 1

These are sometimes called embedded questions, but if you look them up you'll find a variety of terminology in use, including "embedded interrogative content clauses" and "indirect questions".

I think the か in embedded questions is more or less the same か used to form regular questions. But there are a couple differences:

  • In an embedded question, it's okay to have だ before か:

    1. [ 誰だか ] 分からない                  ←  okay

  • In an embedded question, か generally can't be omitted:

    2. デパートは [ どこにある ] 知っていますか?  ←   can't be omitted

Another difference is that embedded interrogatives can function like nouns. In fact, we might want to say as a matter of theory that the か-phrase is the direct object of 知る:

    3a. [ どこにあるか ]- 知らない  
    3b. [ どこにあるか ]   知らない

We might choose to say that sentence 3b is derived from sentence 3a by omitting を. But in practice, it's usually omitted, particularly in conversation, and sometimes inserting を is strange, so I'm not sure if this is the right approach. (See our discussion in chat.)

We have embedded questions in English, too:

   4a. What are you talking about?
   4b. I don't know [ what you're talking about ].

In 4a we have a basic question, and in 4b we have the embedded question corresponding to 4a. Likewise, in Japanese, we can write:

   5a. を言っているのか?
   5b. [ を言っているのか ] 分からない。

As you can see, embedded questions straightforwardly correspond to main clause questions, although in each language there are small differences in syntax.

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Does this か not correspond to an indirect question? Maybe I'm missing something big here. –  3 to 5 business days Oct 28 at 9:01
@3to5businessdays Yes, some people call interrogative content clauses "indirect questions" or "embedded questions" etc. (I should clean this answer up...) –  snailboat Oct 28 at 9:07
How about a sentence like 調査でどんな証拠が見つかるかに応じて起訴を推すかを決めよう。 The first question refers more to a yet unknown circumstance than a question as such. The か particle seems to indicate more doubt than inquisition. –  Espen Nielsen Oct 28 at 12:17
@EspenNielsen I think "embedded interrogative content clause" would probably be the most accurate term. I was trying not to hit people over the head with terminology, so I went with a simpler term that people sometimes use. –  snailboat Oct 28 at 12:29

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