How can I explain to my younger brother (and more importantly, to myself) that it's OK to drop about in:

Go ahead and ask the clerk (about) the price of the car.

That it would be wrong to include it in:

May I ask your name/date of birth?

And that it would be wrong to drop it in:

The doctor asked about the history of my illness.

In all three sentences, a request is being made, and information is expected to be given or shared:

What is the price of the car? (= give it to me)

What is your name? (= give it to me)

What is the history of your illness? (= give it to me)

up vote 11 down vote accepted

Well, your assertions are not entirely correct. For example it's fine to say

The doctor asked the history of my illness

Use "about" when you want to know the general facts around some information, or when the direct and indirect object of the verb might not be clear. Example:

He asked the computer.

He asked about the computer

In the first example, the computer is the indirect object, from which he expects an answer. In the second it's the direct object, the subject of his query.

In the same way, it would be wrong to say something like, "He asked my mother's health," because that makes no sense. You can't ask anything of someone's health. Instead say:

He was always very friendly and often asked about my mother's health

Because adding "about" can imply that the information is doubtful or unusual, don't use it when requesting specific, well-defined information such as, "The doctor asked my date of birth." Instead use it when you want to know more peripheral detail:

The doctor asked about my date of birth -- whether there was an official record, and if I was sure it was the correct date. I think he was trying to say I might be younger than I think I am.

I asked about her name, and what it means in her own language, but she told me it actually doesn't mean anything. Her parents just liked the sound of it.

In some situations, however, "about" implies courtesy, as indirect questions may be more polite in certain contexts.

The customer asked the price of the car.

The customer asked about the price of the car.

Note there are many other ways to express this kind of polite deference:

The hesitant young man inquired into the price of the ring, and whether he might possibly pay in installments.

  • 3
    Noting that I asked the time, She asked the price and We asked the way are acceptable, but things like He asked the menu aren't, I was tempted to think you can only drop the preposition when what's being asked for is something that can be given as a spoken/written answer. But I definitely don't like He asked the weather tomorrow, so I'm not sure that's a valid way to describe whatever "rule" is in play there. And I must admit I had to think a bit before deciding that I can't really argue with I asked the password. – FumbleFingers Oct 21 at 15:39
  • The difference with "about the price of the car" is not just one of politeness. Without "about", it simply inquires what the price is. With "about", it can also ask for other info about the price, e.g. whether it is negotiable or not. – Mr Lister Oct 22 at 9:58

The verb "ask" has a broad field of meaning, and its syntax helps to narrow which meaning is intended.

Ask can be used to indicate the act of requesting a good or service. That sense is indicated by the preposition "for." For example, "I asked him for [a peach / help with my homework]." The "for" cannot be omitted. "I asked him peaches" is not grammatical.

The verb "ask" can be used to indicate the act of posing a specifically phrased question. Example: "I asked the teacher when the paper is due." This may not be an exact quotation, but it purports to specify the material details of the question. This sense is indicated by following "ask" with one or more interrogatives ("where," "when", "who," "what," "how") and subordinate clauses. The interogative usually cannot be left out. "I asked the teacher the paper is due" is not grammatical. In some cases, however, when it is very obvious what interrogative and subordinate clause are intended, they can be left out. For example, "I asked her what is her birthday" can be abbreviated to "I asked her her birthday." As always, ellipsis is proper (though never required) whenever the intended meaning will be crystal clear.

The verb "ask" can be used can be used the act of posing an unspecified question related to some topic. That sense is indicated by the preposition "about." For example, "She asked about next year's prom." We do not know any specifics about her question; we only know the question's topic. "She asked next year's prom" is not grammatical.

There is a lot of overlap in the latter two senses. "Ask the clerk about the price of the car" almost certainly means "Ask the clerk what is the price of the car." If "about" just means "what is" something very specific that is readily understood from context, then, and only then, it can be omitted."

  • 2
    I think I asked her her birthday sounds a bit clumsy, but there's certainly nothing unusual about prepositionless usages such as He asked (me) the time. – FumbleFingers Oct 21 at 15:25
  • @ FF I agree thar it sounds clumsy, but I believe the question concerned what was grammatically acceptable. – Jeff Morrow Oct 21 at 21:56
  • I'm not sure exactly what "grammatically acceptable" means in this context, but idiomatically I think most people would be extremely dubious about, say, I spoke to her, but I didn't ask her birthday. And I find it hard to believe that forcing it to be explicitly ditransitive (by including an extra "her") would somehow make it more "grammatical" and/or idiomatically acceptable. – FumbleFingers Oct 22 at 11:53

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