LINGUIST List 13.3191

Wed Dec 4 2002

Disc: What is a question?

Editor for this issue: Karen Milligan <>


  1. Bruce Despain, Re:Disc: What is a question?

Message 1: Re:Disc: What is a question?

Date: Wed, 04 Dec 2002 08:59:55 -0700
From: Bruce Despain <>
Subject: Re:Disc: What is a question?

Re Linguist 13.3160

Dear Ahmad et al.,

The English paradigm seems to require classification of questions
proper into the yes-no interrogative and the wh-interrogative. The
speaker's intent in using the yes-no interrogative is to request the
hearer to supply the truth value of the sentence queried as you say.
This sentence has the rising question intonation. The
wh-interrogative, as you say, makes myriad replies possible. The
request is to supply additional information. The intonation is that
of a normal statement. It is the "wh-word" that specifies the expected
form of the reply. It is not asking for a truth value. The yes-no
interrogative does that.

The interrogative is related to the imperative, in that most requests
are in the imperative mode and a question is a request for
information. It is also possible to use the syntactic form of the
interrogative to make an emphatic statement: the rhetorical question.
Usually the yes-no interrogative will assert the negative alternative.
The intonation is not that of a question. "Did Homer break the
toaster!" has an unusual stress on "break" and "toaster." The similar
kind of emphatic statement that begins like a wh-interrogative has a
different word order, question: "What did Homer break?" exclamative:
"What Homer did break!" 

The yes-no interrogative, as in "Will you shut the door?" is often
used for making a polite request. The wh-interrogative, as in "How
are you?" is normally a greeting, not requiring an answer, just a
response; it is an invitation to make conversation. The uses of the
various forms derive only generally from their syntactic form. It
appears that idiom blurrs the line between the pragmatic "question"
and the syntactic "interrogative" It also appears that, beyond what
may be relayed by intonation and context, there are probably no
hard-and-fast rules to determine the pragmatic force of a particular
syntactic form. Better questions might be, "If I need to request
 a certain kind of information, what are the forms available?" and "How 
might the form of my request fit this particular situation?"

Bruce D. Despain
arm-chair grammarian
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