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.
Previously we discussed the particle ли, which turns a statement into a question, and we noted that ли must occur as the second item in the sentence. All our example sentences had a single word before ли. It turns out that certain phrases, that is, groups of more than one word, can be the first item before ли. First of all, prepositional phrases can come before ли:
|В Африке ли живут кенгуру?||Is it in Africa that kangaroos live?|
|До войны ли вы жили в Париже?||Was it before the war that you lived in Paris?|
The negative particle не is also a clitic, that is, it is pronounced as part of the word that follows it; unlike ли, it is a proclitic, that is, it is pronounced as part of the word before which it appears. When it combines with a prepositional phrase or other word, the whole unit can occur before ли:
|Не в Москве ли родился Путин?||Wasn't Putin born in Moscow?|
|— Не Пушкин ли написал «Гамлета»?
— Да что ты, «Гамлета» написал Шекспир.
|“Wasn't it Pushkin who wrote Hamlet?”
“Oh, come on, Hamlet was written by Shakespeare.”
This is very common with certain politness phrases:
|Не хотите ли вы чая?||Would you like some tea?|
And you can even add a бы to the sentences to make them even more polite:
|Не хотели ли бы вы чая?||Would you happen to care for some tea?|
|Не смогли ли бы вы помочь мне?||Could you be so kind as to help me?|
Notice the word order here: не comes before the verb. Ли comes immediately after the verb. Бы comes immediately after ли. The subject pronoun comes immediately after бы. No other word order works in these contexts.