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Here's a sentence I found:

デパートはどこにあるか、知っていますか?
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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2 Answers 2

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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 (for examples, see Satoshi Tomioka's paper Japanese Embedded Questions are Nominal, especially pages 8 and 9). 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. Oct 28, 2014 at 9:01
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    @3to5businessdays Yes, some people call interrogative content clauses "indirect questions" or "embedded questions" etc. (I should clean this answer up...)
    – user1478
    Oct 28, 2014 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. Oct 28, 2014 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.
    – user1478
    Oct 28, 2014 at 12:29
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Think of this か as a that is nominalizing a question.

デパートはどこにあるか、知{し}っていますか?

Do you know where is the department store?

In spoken casual conversation I've heard native speakers drop the か and communicate just as effectively, but I would recommend always using か.

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  • I'm not sure か can be dropped in this case. It sounds weird to me, and googling for "どこにある、知" only yields 9 results, of which just two are grammatically similar to this case: 「…それは私の中心がどこにある知られていないので…」 and 「…それは私の中心地がどこにある知られていないため…」 By comparison, "どこにあるか、知" has 12400 results, "どこにあるのか、知" has 6330.
    – Raizin
    Nov 6, 2014 at 21:38
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    You may be able to communicate even if you drop the か, but it is not grammatical to do so as far as I can tell (this may not be true in some particular dialect or another, I suppose...). The best I can think of is that if you split it into two sentences with rising intonation at the end of the first (デパートはどこにある↗ [pause] 知っていますか?) then it is, if not entirely natural, at least more or less grammatical.
    – rintaun
    Nov 7, 2014 at 1:05
  • Definitely not acceptable in written language, but just fine in spoken conversation.
    – j--
    Nov 7, 2014 at 5:58

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