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Concourse 2

Interrogatives

question

Making questions seems such an obvious language skill that we hardly need to analyse how it is done in English.  That's a mistake because English is, in many respects, unlike most other languages in the ways it forms questions, although, of course, the meanings and functions of questions are common to all languages.

This guide deals with the five major types of questions in English so, to get you thinking about the area, can you decide what they are?  Come up with at least three if you can.
Click here when you have a response to that.


cogs

Two technical terms

We can take these five question types one at a time but first we need to get two technical terms straight.

assertive and non-assertive forms
the assertive forms of determiners, adverbs and pronouns are those that generally appear in simple statements.
non-assertive forms usually appear in negatives and questions.
For example (assertive forms in black, non-assertive forms in red):
    I have some work to do
    Do you need
any help?
    I've
already got someone to do that
    Have you started
yet?
    I'm
still thinking about it
    I won't trouble you
any longer
    Was there
anything else?
The importance of distinguishing the forms will become clear soon.  For more, see the guides to assertion and non-assertion and to making negatives in English (links at the end).
operators
The operator in English (and other languages) is a grammatical term.  In English grammar, for our purposes here, it is the auxiliary form of the verbs do, be and have.  In these examples, the operator is in black:
    Does she know you?
   
Have you had enough?
   
Is that tap leaking?
   
Do you want to go?
   
Has she seen the film?
   
Are they coming to the party?
   
Did they manage to catch the train?

marry me

Yes / No questions

Will you marry me?  
forming

Forming Yes / No questions

The way to make yes / no questions is to put the operator before the subject.

Primary auxiliary verbs

It's generally quite simple with auxiliary verbs and works like this:
    He has been to the States → Has he been to the States?
    She is arriving later → Is she arriving later?

and so on.

The verbs be and have work in the same way even when they are the main verbs rather than functioning as auxiliaries as in, e.g.:
    He is here → Is he here?
    She has your address → Has she your address?

In British English the verb have is troublesome for learners because there are alternative forms, the first of which is rarer and more formal:
    Have you my telephone number?
    Have you got my telephone number?
    Do you have my telephone number?

In American and related varieties of English, the preferred form is to use the do operator only to render the question as:
    Do you have my telephone number?

When in its function as an operator, the verb do also forms questions by simple inversion of the verb and the subject.  This occurs in tag questions, doesn't it?

Modal auxiliary verbs

These work in the same way as far as central or pure modal verbs are concerned with a simple inversion of verb and subject:
    She can play the piano → Can she play the piano?
    They must leave → Must they leave?

There are complications with semi-modal verbs and marginal modal verbs to which there is a separate guide on this site linked in the list of related guides at the end.

Present and Past simple

In these two tenses only in English, the do operator is employed to make questions and the inflexion on the verb (if one is present in the declarative) is omitted:

  1. The present simple:
    Do you like asparagus?
    Does she work here?
  2. The past simple:
    Did she ask the boss?
    Did you miss the bus?
focus

Intonation and focus in Yes / No questions

Question intonation
Although individual speakers vary, the general way intonation works is either as a rise at the end of the question or a fall-rise towards the end like this:
ye no intonation
Focusing
In spoken language, focus is achieved by placing the nuclear stress on a selected part of the question, so, for example:
    Did she arrive on time?
focuses on when she arrived but
    Did she arrive on time?
focuses on who arrived and
    Did she arrive on time?
focuses on what she did.
meaning

Meaning of Yes / No questions: orientation

The meaning of yes / no questions depends to an extent on the orientation of the questioner.

Neutral orientation
When the speaker has no pre-determined orientation, the non-assertive forms are used:
    She wants some help → Does she want any help?
   She is already here → Is she here
yet?
   Something's the matter → Is
anything the matter?
   He has a house somewhere else → Does he have a house
anywhere else?
Positive orientation
When the speaker has a pre-determined bias concerning the truth of a proposition, however, assertive forms are used because the speaker is expecting a positive answer:
    I want some help → Do you want some help?
    She has already left → Has she left
already?
    There's something the matter → Is there
something the matter?
    He has a house somewhere else → Does he have a house
somewhere else?
Positive orientation also explains the use of assertive forms in questions that are really offers such as:
    Would you like some coffee?
Negative orientation
When the speaker expects a negative outcome, the situation gets more complicated.
The primary way negative orientation is signalled is through negative questions:
    Nobody came → Didn't anybody come?
    You can't speak French →
Can't you speak French?
Unfortunately, negative questions can also signal positive meanings because they imply that the speaker is surprised by the truth of a proposition, having assumed the contrary, so, for example:
    Can't you give me any help, at all?
implies that I thought you could.
Negative questions are also use to express irritation because they imply a frustrated positive assumption.

Alternative word ordering in negative questions

All the yes / no negative question forms above have an alternative word ordering which is both more emphatic and more formal.
It consists of removing the n't construction and placing not immediately after the main verb as is, for example:
    Ought you not to be at school?
    Did she not turn you down?
    Were they not told about the dangers?

and all these forms imply strongly that the speaker is orientated positively or negatively depending on the sense so the answers that are expected are, respectively:
    Yes, I should
    Yes, she did
    No they weren't


label

Tag questions

Tag questions are classic cases of the speakers' orientation determining the form of the question.

Tag questions are almost solely used in informal spoken language or written language which resembles spoken language (such as very informal emails).
They can be simple statements requiring only confirmation, real questions or expressions of inference, sarcasm, threat, reprimand or conclusion.

forming

Forming tag questions

Fundamentally, tag questions are formed in two ways:

Balanced tags
unbalanced

For example (tags in black):

In balanced tags:

Unbalanced tags
unbalanced

Unbalanced tags involve positive + positive or negative + negative and have number of uses:

  1. Inference:
        So, the car's over the road, is it?
    i.e., I have figured this out from where we are walking
  2. Sarcasm, suspicion or irony:
        So you think you know me, do you?
    i.e., you are presuming too much or
        So, you don't believe me, don't you?
    i.e., it's not your place to make judgements
  3. Threat:
       You'd take my money, would you?
  4. Conclusion:
       So, he likes the book, does he?
       So, he hasn't had the time, hasn't he?
meaning

Intonation, Pronunciation and Meaning in tag questions

Meaning is closely tied to intonation.

Balanced tags exhibit two tones:

  1. In many cases, the tone of voice falls on the tag, like this:
tag example tag example

When the voice falls like this, the tag functions to mean something like:
   Please say you agree with me.
In other words, it asks for confirmation that the speaker is correct.  Notice that the words lovely and late are also stressed here.

  1. When the tone rises, like this:
tag example tag example

Then the sentences function as true interrogatives.  Notice that now we stress the verb because that is the focus of our attention.

In all unbalanced tag questions, the tone rises on the verb in the tag and falls on the pronoun, like this:
unbalanced

Meaning depends on speaker intention and orientation

The communicative function of the sentence is drawn from the first clause.  Compare, e.g.:
    You want a drink, don't you?
where the speaker is probably sure the answer will be 'yes' with:
    You don't want a drink, do you?
where a falling tone would imply the speaker expects a negative response but a rising tone would indicate surprise.
The same thing happens with modal auxiliary verbs.  Compare:
    You couldn't do it for me, could you?
where a rising tone indicates a request, with:
    You could do it for me, couldn't you?
where a rising tone indicates a request but a falling tone indicates almost a command.

Pronunciation is a small issue

It is rare for weak forms of vowels to occur in tags.  For example, the verb can is usually contracted to /kən/ in connected speech but in the tag, it retains its full pronunciation as /kæn/.  E.g.:
    I can come, can't I? is usually transcribed as /ˈaɪ kən kʌm ˈkɑːnt aɪ/ but
    I can't come, can I? is usually /ˈaɪ kɑːnt kʌmm ˈkænnaɪ/

Assertive and non-assertive use

If a positive response is expected, assertive forms will be used:
    You need something to eat, don't you?
    You have finished
already, haven't you?
    They aren't
still here, are they?
If a negative response is expected, non-assertive forms will dominate:
    You don't need any more time, do you?
    You haven't finished
yet, have you?
    They have
no money, have they?
    They aren't here
any longer, are they?

Transferred negation

A peculiarity of English is the transfer of negation and the forms of tags which arise from it.
For example, the statement:
    I don't think he'll arrive
has the tag
    ... will he?
rather than the expected:
    ... do I?
because the negation has been transferred from the subordinate clause (he'll arrive), where it logically belongs, to the main clause.  Compare:
    You think he won't come, don't you?
For more on this, see the guide to negation linked in the list of related guides at the end.

languages

A note on other languages

A few languages work like English with tags following grammatical rules for forming questions and negatives but many do not.  For example:
Many languages, including Polish, German, Greek and others can use a phrase or a single word meaning, roughly, True? or Not true?  So, e.g.:
German: nicht wahr? [not true?], Spanish: ¿verdad? [true?], Polish: prawda? [true?] or nieprawdaż? [not true?], Greek: δεν είναι ετσι; (then eenay etsi?) [is it not so?] and so on.
Some languages have a small range of words or phrases to ask for agreement such as French: n'est ce pas? [isn't it] or d'accord? [agree?] or even, simply, non? [no] appended to the declarative clause.
In many languages there exists a small word used only for tag questions such as Mandarin (ma?), German dialects (gell?) Portuguese: (né?) and so on.

In most languages, the forms have become fossilised and do not vary in the complicated ways that the tags vary in English.  This presents obvious problems for learners.


alternative

Alternative questions

Alternative questions are sometimes seen as a subset of yes / no questions because they have similar forms and similar issues concerning the questioner's orientation and communicative intention.
There are two sorts:

  1. Resembling yes / no questions:
        Would you like tea or coffee?
        Can you stay late or do you have to go?
        Do you want a biscuit, some cake or a bit of chocolate?
  2. Compound questions which begin with a wh-question and then offer the alternatives:
        Which do you want?  Cake or biscuits?
       Where did he go?  London or Manchester?

Intonation is crucial

We saw above that on yes / no questions, the general way intonation works is either as a rise at the end of the question or a fall-rise towards the end.  Not so with alternative questions in which the intonation rises after each member of the list, like this:
alternative intonation
Using the wrong intonation can cause communicative failure because, if the questioner's voice rises only on the final element, the hearer will assume it is a yes / no question.  Consider these two dialogues:
An alternative question:
alternative

To which the expected answer is one or the other
A yes / no question:
yes no

To which the answer may be Yes, please or No, thank you (or I'd rather have a beer).

It is possible to convert any yes / no question into an alternative question by adding or not with rising intonation after the central question so
yes no
can be converted into:
alternative or not


what?

Wh-questions

There are 9 main wh-words:
    what, when, where, why, who, whom, which, whose, how
We will consider them in isolation and talk about what else they do later

Not only do these words make questions, the reason they do so is to do with their meaning.  They all have the general meaning of
    I do not know what this refers to so tell me.
This is why wh-questions are frequently referred to as content questions because the answer is expected to supply the missing content.

We can elicit a range of information using these nine words.

  1. How questions are normally answered by using a whole sentence and here an example might be
        How did you know?
        Mary told me

    It is unlikely that an answer would be
        Immediately
    but that is possible.  Adverbs are sometimes what the question is getting at as in e.g.,
        How was he driving?
        Very carefully

    but that is a fairly rare event.
  2. What questions are almost always directed at non-human nouns or noun phrases so an answer to the question might be something like
        What was she wearing?
        Jeans and a T-shirt

    What questions rarely refer to humans and we prefer
        Which person did you ask?
    or
        Who(m) did you ask?
    over
        What person did you ask?
  3. Where questions are used to elicit spatial information.  The answer will normally be a place, an adverb or a prepositional phrase, e.g.:
        Where did they go?
        To London
        London
        Into the house
        Out
  4. When questions usually elicit a time, a prepositional phrase adverbial or a subordinate clause so possible answers are
        When did they go?
        At 6
        After lunch
        When everyone had finished
  5. Why questions are also normally answered with whole sentences (sometimes much more) or clauses beginning with a word like because such as:
        Why was she crying?
        Because it was so sad
        Because he'd been so rude

    We can omit because although it is always implied as in, e.g.:
        The car had broken down again
    These questions also frequently elicit a clause beginning with to, in order to and so that:
        To make him feel guilty
        In order to make him feel guilty
        So that we'd take pity on her
  6. Who questions traditionally refer to people as the subject of the verb but also, frequently, to the object.  They always refer to people, never inanimate objects and rarely non-humans.  They elicit noun phrases.
        Who told you?
        John
        The man in the shop
        Those people
  7. Whom questions can only be reference to human objects of the verb.
       
    Whom did you tell?
        John
        The man in the shop
        Those people

    In colloquial English whom is frequently replaced by who so the question could easily have been
        Who did you tell?
    but it still refers to the object, not the subject of the verb
  8. Which questions imply a choice from a limited number of options that the questioner is aware of.  They can apply to people and to non-animate items as in:
        Which shirt do you want?
        The blue one
        That one

    but if they are used to refer to people, they must be accompanied by a noun such as girl, boy, man, person, customer etc., all of which refer to classes of people.  The question cannot be:
        *Which did you tell?
    but could be
        Which police officer did you tell?
        The tall one
        Him
        That one
  9. Whose questions refer to people and very rarely to animals, never to inanimate objects.  Possible answers will include the possessive 's marker or involve the use of a possessive determiner or pronoun:
        Whose is that hat?
        John's
        Your mother's
        His
       
    It's my hat
impossible

What is not possible

There are some things that wh-questions cannot elicit.  For example:

  1. We cannot ask about what are called dummy subjects.  We can say
        It got very windy yesterday
    but the question
        What got very windy yesterday?
    is meaningless because the answer would be it.
  2. We cannot ask about the adjective subject complements of copular verbs such as appear, grow, become, seem etc.  We can say
        John appeared tired
        She was exhausted
        They grew angry

    but the questions
        *What did John appear?
        *What was she?
        What did they grow?

    are not possible without altering the meaning in the last case.
  3. We cannot ask about the verb.  We can say
        She told her mother a lie
        They chose him

    but the questions
        *What did she her mother?
        *What did they him?

    are nonsense.

The limitations in English concerning what content can be elicited by wh-questions and the sorts of nouns to which they can refer are not paralleled in other languages so the area needs to be taught, not assumed.

intonation

Intonation in wh-questions

Unlike yes / no questions, the intonation in most wh-questions falls towards the end of the unit instead of rising.  Compare these two questions and say them aloud:

  1. Are you coming to the meeting?
  2. What time is the meeting?

Question intonation on questions formed with wh-words like:
    What time is the meeting?
generally falls, but on a question such as
    Are you coming to the meeting?
it tends to rise.  The effect can be represented like this:
question intonation

This is not an absolute rule – very little of intonation contains such things – but it is a clear tendency.  Many languages rely solely on intonation to make questions from statements and the usual form is to have rising intonation so speakers of these languages will be tempted to transfer the pattern to wh-questions and sound unnaturally insistent.
They may also naturally transfer what they have learned about intonation in yes / no questions and sound quite rude.
This is an area that needs to be taught because many learners will assume that intonation always rises on questions and are in danger of sounding rude and demanding if they do this with wh-questions.

forming

Forming wh-questions

The issue here is case.  There are three which apply to wh-questions: nominative (subject case), accusative (object case) and genitive (possessive case).

  1. It matters a lot if the wh-word is the subject of the sentence or not.  When the wh-phrase is the subject of the verb, the order of words which follow it is unchanged from a simple positive statement.  We merely replace the subject noun or noun phrase without disturbing the word order.  For example:
    Positive sentence vs. Wh-question
    The boys from over the road broke the glass Who broke the glass?
    John's car hit the gate Whose car hit the gates?
    The marching band from Baltimore comes next What comes next?
  2. In other circumstances, the question word refers to the object of the verb we get a pattern like this.  The order of words after the wh-word is changed to reflect the fact that it is a question form.  In other words, we add the wh-word to the normal question form.
    Yes / No question vs. Wh-question
    Did you lose a letter? Which letter did you lose?
    Did you see anyone? Whom/Who did you see?
  3. Where the wh-word refers to the complement (rather than the object) of the verb, the same patterns occur
    Yes / No question vs. Wh-question
    Have you been here long? How long have you been here?
    Were you late? Why were you late?
    Are you going to tell her? When are you going to tell her?
    Is the meeting here? Where is the meeting?

This is a complication which many other languages do not share so it is a source of errors such as:

etc.


complications

Complications with how, what and why

how

Most wh-words have a straightforward meaning.  The word how is somewhat different because it operates with a range of adverbials and can elicit:

  1. duration:
       How long have you been waiting?
  2. frequency
       How often does she do that?
  3. degree
        How much does he want the job?
  4. distance or duration:
        How long is the journey?
  5. personal feeling:
        How are you?
  6. quality:
        How was the trip?
  7. extent:
        How interesting did you find it?
  8. quantity:
        How many do we need?

The issue here is the word is followed by a range of other items (quantifiers, adverbs, adjectives etc.) and its meaning alters considerably.  Other languages do not have such a common multiword so the area needs handling carefully.  Learners can easily become confused.

what

The word what also exhibits multiple meanings but to a lesser extent.  We can have, for example:
    What did you tell her?
which refers to a nominalised clause and elicits answers such as:
    That I was coming later
or we can ask:
    What can I help you with?

which refers to a clause or noun phrase and elicits answers such as:
    getting this PC to work properly
or
    this blessed computer program
We can also ask:
    What flight are you on?
which elicits a noun phrase such as:
    BA507

why

This is the only one in the series of nine words which allows a negative question.  This is because we can pre-suppose the fact that something was not done.  For example:
    Why didn't she come?
presupposes the fact that she was absent.
With other wh-words, that sort of presupposition is not possible in the negative.
We cannot have, then:
    *Where didn't she come?
because it pre-supposes that she didn't come somewhere which is a vanishingly rare thing to imagine.


formal

wh-questions and prepositions: style

Formality in English requires the wh-word to be accompanied by its preposition so we get, e.g.:

Formal question vs. Informal question
With whom did you come? Who did you come with?
For what did he ask? What did he ask for?
With which officer did you speak? Which officer did you speak with

That's the general rule but the longer the clause between the wh-word and the preposition, the more difficult it gets to construct an informal sentence.  Would you accept, e.g.,
    What did you use to get the awful mess out of the pipe and clear away all the dirty water from the sink with?
or
    What time are you going to ask them all and their friends from Holland to meet us under the pier at?

emphasise

Emphasising wh-questions

What ever are they doing?  

The most frequent way to emphasise wh-questions is the use of the word or suffix -ever.  For example

Some things to note:

  1. There are other popular emphasisers such as the hell, in heaven's name, on earth etc.
  2. These are normally written as two words to distinguish their function.  When they are written as one word, they usually function as adverbs to mean It doesn't matter who/what/when/how/which etc.  For example
        Whoever comes late must sit over there
    is not emphatic.  It means anyone who comes late.
    and
        He leaves whenever he feels a little tired
    is also not emphatic.  It functions as a subordinating conjunction just as when does.  The same applies to
        You can sit wherever you like
    and to many other -ever words.
  3. The emphatic why ever only occurs as two words in English.

customs check-in

Declarative questions

... and you packed this bag yourself?  

This is the final and simplest form of question-making in English.  Because it is so simple, learners are tempted to overuse it.  Many languages make questions routinely this way by simply varying the intonation on a declarative sentence to make it interrogative (and in some languages, such as Greek, it is the sole way to make questions).  English can do it but it is unusual, and almost never occurs in formal writing.
In speech, declarative questions often express surprise or shock.  In writing, they are, informally, signalled by exclamation and question marks together.

Declarative questions are in the same form as statement but the intonation is that of a question:
Statement:
statement

Declarative question:
declarative

Considerations apply here concerning assertive and non-assertive forms and the orientation of the questioner.  That orientation can be positive:
    You have had someone to help you?
or negative:
    You have had no one to help you?
Non-assertive forms are not possible with declarative questions so, e.g.:
    *You have had anyone to help you?
is not possible.
Positively orientated declarative questions are often suffixed with expressions such as I suppose, of course, I imagine etc.

It is possible to insert a tag at the end of declarative questions as in, e.g.:
    You've been to The British Museum, have you?
but in this case the tag intonation resembles that of a normally balanced tag and not the unbalanced rise-fall illustrated above because no criticism is intended.


flags

Other languages

Where you come from?
You come from where?
 

Forming interrogatives in English is not, as we have seen, particularly simple.  To help people, it is helpful to know how our learners' first languages form questions because that allows us to plan how to teach the area and predict or pre-empt obvious difficulties caused by language interference.

Most languages have words for universal concepts like what, when, how, who etc. but such words do not always come at the beginning of the clause so, for example, Turkish forms:
    The bank where?
instead of
    Where is the bank?

As we saw above, many languages have more-or-less fixed question tags forms, too, relying on a single structure or word to make all tag questions regardless of their content.

Forming yes/no questions is also quite variable across languages.
There are three main ways to form these sorts of questions and some languages employ more than one so appear more than once in the lists here:

Inversion of verb and subject
Just as English inverts the auxiliary verb and the subject noun phrase to make, for example:
    Can he come?
from
    He can come
or
    Has she seen the film?
from
    She has seen the film
many other languages do this routinely with lexical verbs, too, rather than confining the inversion to auxiliary verbs so, for example, from
    He arrives soon
the question is formed as:
    Arrives he soon?
Languages which do this include
    Dutch
    German
    Swedish
    Norwegian
    Danish
    French (but also with an unusual pre-modifier, est-ce que which translates as is it that and may be preceded by a wh- word)
    Romanian
Intonation change only
We saw above that English can form declarative questions by leaving the ordering of the elements of a clause alone and marking the question by rising intonation so we have have, for example:
    You saw Mary?
instead of
    Did you see Mary?
A range of important languages use intonation as the only way to form questions and some also use intonation routinely instead of inverting the subject and verb or using any other form of question marker.  They include:
    Chinese languages
    French
    Greek
    Russian
    Polish
    Czech
    Italian
    Arabic
    Portuguese
    Farsi (Persian)
    Romanian
    Korean
Affixation or particle insertion
English does not have a single interrogative particle or affix but many languages leave the word order of a declarative clause unchanged and insert a question marker either as a suffix on the verb or as a particle usually in the clause final position.
These languages include:
    Finnish (which inserts the interrogative morpheme ko after the verb)
    Turkish (a clause final particle mi)
    Farsi (a clause final particle aya)
    Japanese (a clause final particle ka)
    Korean (a clause final particle aya, eyo or iyo)
    Thai (a clause final particle mai)


Related guides
negation and questions this is a general and simpler guide covering some peculiarities of English
wh-questions a simpler guide to this area only in the initial plus section
tag questions a simpler guide to this area only in the initial plus section
assertion and non-assertion for more on the differences
semi-modal verbs for consideration of how these work with assertive and non-assertive structures
negation for an analysis of a related area
embedded questions for a short guide to a particular type of polite question
reported speech to see how questions can be reported in indirect speech


References:
Campbell, GL, 1995, Concise Compendium of the World's Languages, London: Routledge
Swan, M and Smith, B (Eds), 2001, Learner English, 2nd Edition, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press