A friend who is a Spanish native speaker said something like this to me recently (in English)

*He told her if she was Asian

That sentence would be fine if the verb were "ask", but "tell" cannot make clauses using if/whether. I thought it through further and I guess questioning verbs vs. telling verbs take this pattern, but was wondering if actually something quite different is going on here once I thought it through further. Take the following examples:

He told him that he wanted a sandwich / He told him he wanted a sandwich

She asked her if she wanted coffee / *She asked her she wanted coffee

This seems to indicate that while on the surface, the constructions look similar, actually something different is going on. In addition, there seems to be some constraints with the tense of verb in the clause of the second example with "if" ("that he wants" sounds better somehow than "if she wants") What is going on here exactly?

As a side note, my friend told me that the Spanish equivalent would be "le dije que si ella era asiatica" but he wasn't sure if this was fully grammatical in Spanish either.

  • Why the close votes? At least post a comment explaining to the questioner how they've went wrong. Personally i think the question is linguistically relevant, and would be fine if framed a little differently.
    – P Elliott
    Jan 5, 2014 at 15:26
  • 1
    The contrast you give could be taken as evidence that English has a null [-interrogative] complementiser, but no null [+interrogative] complementiser. If this is just a contingent fact about the English lexicon, we'd expect to find languages which have null [+int] complementisers. Furthermore, the possibility of an interrogative clausal complement isn't purely conditioned by the lexical verb, you can say, e.g. tell me if she is Asian.
    – P Elliott
    Jan 5, 2014 at 15:29
  • I'm not understanding your objection to my question. It seems that you got the gist of it so please tell me how I can fix it rather than downvoting. I can move it to the English stack exchange as well, but I was curious since the native speaker was Spanish.
    – V_H
    Jan 5, 2014 at 18:34
  • @V_H: I can't comment on the Spanish aspect of your question, but for English, clauses that drop "that" are called bare relative clauses. Is that what you were looking for?
    – prash
    Jan 6, 2014 at 0:09
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    "He told her if she was Asian" or maybe better "He told her whether she was Asian" are fine. If someone is looking into her ancestry, a genealogist may tell her very well whether her roots are in Asia or not. Of course, the meaning is different from asking her about her origins, but that is an understandable semantic difference between telling and asking.
    – oerkelens
    Jan 6, 2014 at 14:01


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