LINGUIST List 13.3160

Tue Dec 3 2002

Disc: New: What is a question?

Editor for this issue: Karen Milligan <>


  1. Ahmad R. Lotfi, Disc. New: What is a question?

Message 1: Disc. New: What is a question?

Date: Mon, 2 Dec 2002 23:18:33 -0800 (PST)
From: Ahmad R. Lotfi <>
Subject: Disc. New: What is a question?

Dear linguists,

Following Hamblin (1958), Hagstrom (1998) defines a question as as a
set of propositions. Then--as I understand this--when one asks the
yes/no question "Did Homer break the toaster?" one provides the
interlocuter with a set of two propositions, namely P="Homer broke the
toaster" and ~P (="Homer did not break the toaster"). The hearer is
required to determine the truth value of these two as the answer. For
a wh-question, the set of propositions drastically increase in number,
I believe.

This reduces a question to a speech act of requesting information on
the truth value of the sets of propositions. It raises two questions,
however: firstly, the definition is pragmatic rather than syntactic
while questions are the centre of focal attention in syntax,
too. Defining a question in mere formal terms (e.g. as the sentential
word order AUX SUBJ VERB ..., or a sentence with the feature Q), on
the other hand, is either too language-specific or redundant. Secondly
(and more importantly), it is still possible to require the hearer to
evaluate the truth conditions of the same propositions without asking
a question, e.g. "You are required to pass judgements on the truth
value of P and ~P, and let me know your judgements" which is
semantico-pragmatically equivalent to "Did Homer break the toaster?"
without asking a question. Moreover, from a pragmatic point of view,
it is also possible to use a question to fulfil some other speech act
than requiring information of this sort, e.g. "Would you close the
door, please?" Apparently, what universally distinguishes a question
from a non-question is neither semantico-pragmatic nor syntactic but
purely phonological (high pitch accompanying a question). But even
this phonological criterion fails in indirect questions like "John
asked me whether Homer broke the toaster." In this sense, questions
fail to have any pragmatic, semantic, syntactic, and phonological
properties universally in common. Languages merely show a (strong)
tendency to use high-pitch utterances as requests for information.


Ahmad R. Lotfi, Ph. D
Department of English Language
Graduate School
Azad University
Esfahan, IRAN
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