Previously we discussed the particle ли in its function of making yes-no questions. It has another function as the equivalent of the English word ‘whether.’ In English ‘whether’ always occurs as the first word in its subordinate clause; ли must always be the second item in its clause:
|Я не знаю, должен ли я купить новый мобильник.||I don't know whether I should buy a new cell phone.|
If the subordinate clause contains words like должен, надо or нужно, they usually come before ли. The next most likely word to come before ли is a conjugated verb:
|Она спросила, хочу ли я чая.||She asked whether I wanted tea.|
|Она хочет знать, говорит ли Борис по-английски.||She wants to know whether Boris speaks English.|
Any other word/phrase can occur before ли if it bears the focus of the question:
|Мой брат спросил, мама ли купила продукты.||My brother asked whether it was mother who had bought the groceries or dad.|
|Профессор спросил, в Париже ли находится музей «Museo del Prado».||The professor asked whether it was in Paris that the “Museo del Prado” could be found.|
Clever students will have noticed that this use of ли is a part of what we call “indirect speech.” Indirect speech in Russian and English behave somewhat differently. In English, when changing from direct speech to indirect speech, the tense of the subordinate clause undergoes fairly complex changes. For instance, considering the following sentences.
Zhanna is asking John, “Do you want some tea?”
Zhanna will ask John, “Do you want some tea?”
Note the tense of the verbs in the subordinate clause in the corresponding indirect speech sentences:
Zhanna is asking John whether he wants some tea.
Zhanna will ask John whether he wants some tea.”
This change is called “sequence of tenses” by linguists. Russian does not have a sequence of tenses rule like that. Whatever the tense of a verb is in the original direct speech is the same tense that occurs in the indirect speech. In other words, in direct speech we will have:
Жанна спрашивает Ивана, хочет ли он чая.
Жанна спросит Ивана, хочет ли он чая.
Rule of thumb: when switching from direct speech to indirect speech in Russian, keep the tense of the original verb.