Chapter Six
Getting Information

introduction | grammar | pragmatics and discourse | reflections | grammar detective | teaching ideas |

Some Concepts.

Grammar Focus. Questions.

    Questions are basic to the give and take of social interaction. In fact, on average we either ask, answer, or at least hear a question once in every 40 words of conversation. Since we learn language best by interacting with others, it is important that English language learners recognize and respond to questions in appropriate ways if they want to maintain social relations with other English speakers. However, since questions seldom occur in writing and often have a different form and function in academic texts than in conversation, English language learners may be bewildered by the questions they encounter as they interact with others.  As an introduction to some of these problems, let’s do two awareness activities. The first addresses what a question sounds like, the second, how we are expected to respond to questions. To help us identify how questions fit into our social activities, all the examples in this chapter are based on swimming as a fitness activity.

Awareness Activity 6.1. The sound of questions.

     How can you tell that someone has just asked you a question? Most languages either mark a question by having musical pitch of that rises at the end of the sentence. Others add a special question word at the beginning or the end of the sentence. What does English do? Say the following sentences to yourself. Take note of how we seem to mark questions.

    Did you notice that the statement, the command, and the wh-questions all had the same falling intonation pattern at the end? Only the wh-words where and how at the first of the sentences indicated that two of them were questions. There were two signals for the yes/no-questions. Rather than a special question word, there was a special word order. Instead of the expected SVO, the auxiliary verbs did and can were moved ahead of the subject. However, the primary question indicator was the rising pitch on the last word, the pattern that most languages use.  Note that in the unmarked yes/no-question, only the rising intonation indicated that it was a question. In other words, if English language learners are listening for the rising intonation pattern that most languages use to mark questions, they will miss the important wh-questions that are directed their way.

Awareness Activity 6.2. Questions and discourse.

What went wrong with this telephone conversation between a native speaker of English (B) calling a friend to go swimming and the friend’s nonnative roommate (A)?

Ring, ring
Speaker A. Hello.
Speaker B. Hello. Daisy?
Speaker A. (pause) No.
Speaker B. Does Daisy live there?
Speaker A. (pause) Yes.
Speaker B. Is she home?
Speaker A. (long pause) DAISY!
    Notice that speaker A doesn’t know how questions work in telephone conversations. When the caller doesn’t recognize the voice of the person answering the phone, saying the name of the desired person with a rising intonation pattern means more than “Is this Daisy?”. It is also a request to call Daisy to the phone, if she is there, or to indicate that she is absent or that this is the wrong number. To simply give the classroom answer yes or no is inappropriate.  Notice that the caller, perhaps reacting to the pause before the answer, suspects that this is the wrong number and asks if Daisy lives there.  Notice another inappropriate answer. If she lives there, the question implies a request to call her to the phone if she is there or to explain that she is absent. A simple yes does not suffice. The caller then voices the implied request of the previous question by asking if Daisy is home. The expected answer would be “yes, I’ll get her” or “no, she isn’t.” Instead, after a long pause A simply calls Daisy’s name.


    Before we look at how discourse and pragmatics influence the use of questions, let’s look at how yes/no-questions and wh-questions are formed.

    Yes/no-questions. The rule of thumb for creating yes/no-questions is to take the first helping or auxiliary verb and move it ahead of the subject. This auxiliary verb that is moved around is often called the operator in grammar books. The verb be is always considered an operator, whether it serving as an auxiliary verb or not as long as it appears first in the verb slot of the sentence. This process is usually called subject auxiliary or subject operator inversion. Notice that these questions can all be answered yes or no, hence the name yes/no-question.

Notice that the operator is merely moved ahead of the subject, not to the first of the sentence. Note too how the pitch or tone of the voice rises at the end of these questions.

    If there is no helping or auxiliary verb, the auxiliary verb do is inserted as the operator and the tense is attached to it. This new operator is then moved ahead of the subject.

    Wh- questions. Wh-questions are asked when special information is unknown or unclear, such as the location, the participants, the object, the reason, the manner, or the time. In these cases, an appropriate question word (where, who, what, why, how, or when respectively) is placed at the beginning of the sentence. Notice that most of these question words begin with wh-, hence the name wh-question. If the wh-word is serving as the subject of the sentence, the sentence continues in the expected SVO pattern. If however the wh-word is asking for information that would normally appear after the verb, in other words, in the O position, the same subject operator inversion that was needed for yes/no-questions applies. In other words, an operator typically follows a wh-word. Answering the question reveals whether the wh-word is the subject of the question or is based on information that would normally be found after the verb in the O position.

    Who and whom.  Though many English teachers and some grammar books hate to admit it, the English language is changing. The prescriptive rule states that the question word who is used only when it is the subject of the sentence (Who is coming?).  Whom is used otherwise (Whom did you see? To whom did you give your towel?) In other words, who is used in cases where the pronoun he might appear in the answer, whom where him might appear. Notice that they both end in –m.     However, in present day English whom has disappeared from conversation and most writing. When it does appear, it usually comes after a preposition, as in the last example. However, this sounds very formal in conversation. Usually the preposition is left at the end of the sentence (stranded in linguistic parlance) and who is used.

Pragmatics and Discourse.

Questions in conversation.
    As mentioned earlier, questions are an integral part of conversation. If they simply followed the grammatical patterns outlined above, things would be fine. However, only about half the questions in a conversation do. The rest follow other patterns. There is also the problem of how we are supposed to respond to questions. As we saw in AA 6.2, questions can serve not only to get information but to promote conversation and direct actions. Let’s take a closer look at yes/no and wh-questions to see how they work.

    Answering yes/no-questions. The discourse rule for questions seems simple enough. Answer yes/no-questions with yes or no, adding a short answer that repeats the auxiliary serving as the operator. If there is more than one auxiliary, they too may be used in the answer.

    However, researchers find that although yes/no-questions may be answered this way, more often they are answered with an expanded answer, often without a yes-no answer as in the following.     They find that the short answers that we typically teach in class are used only when we want to be uncooperative or unsociable and wish to reveal as little information as possible. Most commonly, we ask yes-no questions to be sociable and to direct the discussion towards certain topics. Most answer yes (or yep or yah or uh huh) or no (or nope, nah, or uh uh) and add another comment or indirectly answer with such comments as “I guess so” or “Is the sky blue?” The sociability factor in yes-no questions is so ingrained in us that we have to be reminded when it is more appropriate to give the short answers that are taught in the classroom.  I’m sure you’ve seen on TV where the lawyer examining a talkative witness on the witness stand says, “Please answer the question with only yes or no.” When the police stop us for speeding, we remind ourselves, or our children, to say a little as possible and to answer questions with a polite “yes, sir,” “no, sir,” and little more.

    Answering negative yes/no-questions. Negative yes/no-questions cause problems for learners from many parts of the world, in particular Asia and West Africa. Notice the difference between the following:

The first question is simply a question. The answer can be Yes, I am, or No, I am not. The second, a negative yes/no-question, signals that the speaker expected that you would be joining them for swimming and now realizes that it might not be true. The answers to both questions would be the same if you are not joining them. However, speakers from West Africa and Asia would answer the first one, No (I am not) and the second, Yes, (I am not).

     Uninverted yes/no-questions. Note the form of the questions that the second speaker uses in response to the comment of the first speaker:

These statement questions do not have the expected subject operator inversion. Only the rising intonation indicates to the listener that they are questions. These are rather common in conversation.

    Elliptical yes/no-questions. Note how the helping verb and sometimes the subject have been deleted from the following questions. Note too the intonation.

Elliptical questions are some of the most common in conversation.

    Exclamatory questions. These look and sound like yes/no-questions but are simply evaluative comments that expect no answer. Note that the intonation pattern can be rising or falling.

    Rhetorical questions. These yes/no-questions simply introduce a topic that the speaker wants to comment on. Again, the intonation may be either rising or falling. No answer is expected from the listener.     Tag questions. We already have seen in first chapter tag questions. They look like statements with a yes/no-question attached. Their intonation pattern too can be either rising or falling. About every fourth question in conversation is a tag question since one function of questions is to seek confirmation and to keep the conversation going.     Alternative yes/no-questions. Sometimes yes-no questions are used to present choices. Notice that this can be combined with a wh- question. The intonation pattern falls, as in a statement, rather than rises, as might be expected with a yes/no-question.

    Wh-questions are much less common in conversation than yes/no questions since the main purpose of questions in conversation is to keep the conversation going rather than to seek information.  However, they do occur and perform important social functions. Let’s take a look at some of the discourse and pragmatic peculiarities of wh-questions in conversation.

    Answering wh-questions.  We answer wh-questions by supplying the missing information. Most commonly this is done without complete sentences.

    Often in conversation the person asking the wh-question suggests an answer as a yes/no-question, often elliptical.     Uninverted wh-questions (pedagogical questions).  We carefully teach students that the wh- word must be at the first of the sentence. Then the students hear the following on the streets or when they attend other classes. Note the rising intonation, so unexpected with wh-questions. The first might be used to indicate surprise at a comment someone has made. The second two might be expected in a teacher lead discussion in a fitness class, hence the name pedagogical or teaching question. They have the form of an oral fill-in-the-blank quiz where the question words mark the blanks that the student should fill with appropriate information.     When more than one piece of information is asked for, only one of the question words is placed in the initial position.     Elliptical wh- questions. In conversation we might also hear the following. Note that the operator has been deleted. The “What you” form is frequently pronounced “whatcha” ’

    Emphatic wh-questions. There are a couple of ways to show surprise, dismay, or perplexity when asking wh-questions.  One is to add an expletive after the wh-word. The following are some mild examples.

An even milder way is to add ever with a heavy stress to wh-question words.     Echo questions. Sometimes a wh-question is used to ask for an answer or statement to be repeated (echoed) either because we didn’t hear it clearly or don’t believe the answer. Notice too that the intonation rises rather than falls. Sometimes the wh-word stays in the position of the missing information.     Formulaic wh-questions. Some wh- questions are so common in conversation that they have become fixed formulaic expressions or chunks that are useful for various social purposes. Here are some examples that English language learners should learn to use. Questions in Writing.
    There is much less to say about questions in writing since they are so much less common. Most appear in fiction, particularly in dialog, where they have the same characteristics as questions in conversation.  When they appear in journalism and academic prose, they tend to have a different form and function than questions in conversation. Perhaps the chief difference in form is that in journalism and academic prose questions tend to be in full form with complete answers. In conversation about half of all questions are elliptical or tags. The answers too tend to be elliptical. Whereas in conversation yes/no-questions overwhelmingly predominate, wh-questions make up half of the questions in journalism and academic prose. Since academic prose and journalism have the form of a monologue, questions tend to be didactic, guiding the reader through the flow of information. Questions and social networks.
     How can you tell if people are being polite, angry, concerned, or indifferent by the way they use and respond to questions? The answer is not as easy as you might think. We all interact with different social groups, some more public than others. We all probably use questions in similar ways in such public situations as school or work. But how about more private situations such as those found in the home, at church, or with friends? Since questions play such an important part in our interactions with others, we might expect different rules to develop for how to use questions in these different social groups, especially since to some extent they are isolated from each other. In AA 4.2 we saw the miscommunication that can take place when people from different ethnic groups do not follow the same discourse rules for how to respond to questions on the telephone. Let’s look briefly at two other examples of cultural differences in the use of questions, one from male-female speech and one from English as a foreign language (EFL).

     Male and Female Speech.  In North America men and women come from different subcultures. In spite of coeducation and family ties, they spend much of their lives interactionally segregated. Their friendships and their activities are mostly with people of the same sex. Within these social networks, women and men use language differently. Women are taught to use speech to be supportive of each other so as to create and maintain relationships of closeness and equality.  As such they tend to use questions to show solidarity and agreement. Men, on the other hand, are taught to use language as a type of posturing, to challenge others and to present their own ideas, thus establishing an individual identity. As such they tend to interrupt, ignore comments of others, give put downs, and promote their own suggestions and ideas as they try to control the conversation.

     Because of these differing communication strategies, men and women use questions and answers differently. Women are more likely than men to use tag questions, especially with rising intonation, as confirmers to promote solidarity. They are also more likely to answer questions in the form of an elliptical yes/no-question with rising intonation so as elicit cooperation, as in the following.

As they listen to answers to questions, they tend to say mm hmm as a sign that they are listening, not necessarily that they are agreeing with the statements.

      Men are more likely to use questions words as rejoinders (Says who? What for? Since when?) as they challenge what is being said. They are also more likely to use tag questions with a falling intonation pattern as a statement of fact. They tend to reserve their mm hmm’s to indicate that they agree with what is being said.

    Thus when men and women converse with each other, there can be miscommunication. Men may think that women are indecisive because of the frequent rising intonation patterns in both questions and answers. They may think that women can’t make up their minds because their mm hmm’s indicate that they are agreeing with what is being said and then seem to change their mind when it is their turn to speak. On the other hand women may think that men are rude because they are always challenging what is being said, are always pushing their own ideas, and through their lack of mm hmm’s show that they aren’t really paying attention to what women say.

     EFL English. When people learn English in a foreign setting, their only contact with the language tends to come from textbooks and language teachers. We have seen that questions in textbooks serve a different function than questions in social interaction. Since they do not have many opportunities to interact with native speakers of English outside of class, they do not know how we use questions in social interaction. As a result they fall back on question patterns from their own language. Often that works, but there can be mismatches of communication styles. This is most apparent in how we use yes/no-questions to encourage conversation.

    For example, compare the following two conversations between friends.

Speaker A: Did you go to the movies last night?
Speaker B. Yah, we went to see Spiderman. Great movie. Have you seen is yet?

Speaker A: Did you go to the movies last night?
Speaker B. Yes.
Speaker A. Which movie did you see?
Speaker B. Spiderman.
Speaker A. Did you like it?
Speaker B. Yes.

    Notice that conversation 1 is the way we would expect a conversation to go. The first question is more than a yes/no-question. It gives a topic for discussion. The person who answers is expected to make some sort of a comment and ask a question in return. Conversation 2 sounds more like a police interrogation than a friendly conversation. Speaker B seems indifferent, perhaps in a bad mood. However, this is the expected pattern in some countries. For example, in formerly communist central and eastern Europe, parents taught their children to tell the truth but to reveal as little information as possible to friendly people outside the family who might ask questions about personal activities. Because of the secret police system, revealing too much could result in the arrest of a family member. These minimal responses to yes/no-questions still persist with many people. As a result, English speakers who visit often feel like they are forced to pull information out of their new friends, as in the second conversation, much like a nosy busy body.

1. Why are the following concepts important for teachers and English language learners?

2. What went wrong? Explain the rule of thumb that was broken in the following sentences: 3. Teachers of younger children often use a rising intonation on all questions, whether wh- or yes/no. Why do you think that is so?

4. Although the United States is a multiethnic nation with millions of immigrants from around the world, within three generations, their families typically switch to English, even when they live in ethnic neighborhoods. Even though they have switched to English, they may use English questions in a pattern that differs from the rest of the population. What examples do you have of such differences from your own family or from your experience with others?

5. Read this conversation between two fishermen. Write out what they really said. What has been left out? What kinds of questions predominate? What are the characteristics of the answers? What are the implications for teachers whose students are learning English on the streets?


Grammar Detective 6. The Pragmatics of Yes/No Questions.

Teaching Ideas.

1. Question Catch. Here’s a good activity to help the students get acquainted while letting them practice their questions. Ask the students what kinds of things they might want to know about each other, such as name, hobbies, favorite foods, or activities. As they brainstorm, write the topics on the board. Then have everyone sit in a circle. Give a tennis ball, a soft small stuffed toy, or even a wadded up sheet of paper to one of the students. That student asks a question based on the topics on the board and then tosses the object to another student. That student then answers the question, asks the same or another question and tosses the object to someone else. The game continues in this way.

2. Question Formation. This activity helps those who are visual learners remember the grammar of question formation. Write out several short sentences, some with auxiliary verbs, some without. Write the sentences on 3 x 5 cards, one word per card. (You can keep these cards for other activities.) If a card has a main verb with verb agreement or with the past tense, on the other side write the plain form of the verb without the tense or verb agreement. Write other cards with wh- question words appropriate for the sentences you have selected. Prepare other cards with do, does and did. Place the sentences on the chalk rail and then have a student move the cards around and make appropriate substitutions of wh- words to make various questions. For verbs in the simple present with verb agreement or with the past, when you add the appropriate do operator, turn the verb card over so the plain form of the verb appears. That way they will see that the tense has shifted to the do.

3. Who am I? This version of the popular game Twenty Questions practices yes/no-questions. Have the students think of the name of a famous person, such as a political figure, a singer, or a movie star, or alternatively, someone well known locally or at the school. When it is their turn to be it, the rest of the class has twenty opportunities to ask yes/no-questions to gather enough information so they can make the identification.