Asking Questions in Russian with Ли Posted by Maria on Jan 9, 2020 in grammar
Did you know Russian had a particle for asking questions? Furthermore, that same word can be used as a conjunction in dependent clauses and reported speech! Let’s talk about the main uses of ли.
Yes or No Questions
Ли can be used in yes or no questions. As you may remember, Russian does not use auxiliary (“helping”) verbs or a different word order for asking questions. For questions with a question word, that word makes clear that it’s a question; for general, “yes-or-no” questions, a rising intonation signals the same thing. For example:
- Я до́ма (I’m home).
- Ты до́ма? (Are you home?)
However, you could also use an interrogative particle, ли (“whether”), in this type of question. This usage is a bit more formal and sounds a bit more unsure or incredulous — something like “Have you ever…” or “Did you happen to…”
It would, therefore, be unusual to use ли in a simple, informal question, for instance, “До́ма ли ты?” But it works well for more abstract questions like FAQ pages or natural science inquiries.
- Мо́жно ли по́льзоваться телефо́ном в самолёте? (Can one use their phone on a plane?)
- Живу́т ли в А́фрике пингви́ны? (Do penguins live in Africa?)
A famous mock example of a “pie in the sky” question of this kind is
- Есть ли жи́знь на Ма́рсе? (Is there life on Mars?)
Note that a typical word order is the verb + ли + the rest of the sentence.
Another use of ли is in dependent clauses. It is similar to the English “if” or “whether.” Just like above, ли follows the verb.
- Непоня́тно, дошло́ ли письмо́ адреса́ту (It’s unclear whether the letter made it to the recipient).
- На ка́чество кни́ги влия́ет, процити́ровал ли а́втор рабо́ты предше́ственников (Whether the author has cited their predecessors’ works affects the quality of the book).
This conjunction is especially well-suited for indirect questions and speech, that is relaying someone else’s words or opinions. Note that Russian uses the natural sequence of tenses, meaning that the indirect question remains in the same tense as the direct question (usually, present).
- Я не зна́ю, пу́стят ли нас в э́тот рестора́н (I don’t know if we’ll be allowed into this restaurant).
- Она́ спроси́ла, говорю́ ли я по-францу́зски (She asked if I spoke French).
A common mistake by learners and Russian speakers living abroad is to replace “ли” with “е́сли.” Если means “if” only in conditional clauses, not in indirect speech. Compare:
- Я всё тебе́ расскажу́, е́сли приду́ на заня́тия (I will tell you everything if I come to class).
- Я не зна́ю, приду́ ли на заня́тия (I don’t know if I’ll come to class).
I hope this refresher was helpful! What other topics would you like to see covered?
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