Echo Question in Language

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

An echo question is a type of direct question that repeats part or all of something which someone else has just said. It is also called a parrot question or a "repeat, please" question. An echo question is one type of echo utterance. We do this when we do not fully understand or hear what someone has said. Asking an echo question with rising or fall-rising intonation allows us to clarify what we think we heard.

Examples and Observations

  • Telemachus: We're waiting for Odysseus to come home.
    Antinuous: You're waiting for who to do what?
    Albert Ramsdell Gurney, The Comeback, 1993
     
  • Mary: What do you want?
    George Bailey: What do I want? Why, I'm just here to get warm, that's all!
    It's a Wonderful Life, 1946
     
  • Holden: "I used to play checkers with her all the time."
    Stradlater: "You used to play what with her all the time?"
    Holden: "Checkers."
    Holden Caulfield and Stradlater in The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, 1951

Intonation With Echo Questions

  • We use echo questions either because we did not fully hear or understand what was said, or because its content is too surprising to be believed.

    A: It cost $5,000.
    B: How much did it cost?
    A: His son's an osteopath.
    B: His son's a WHAT?

    Echo questions are usually spoken with a rising intonation and with a strong emphasis on the wh-word (what, who, how and so on).
    Geoffrey Leech, A Glossary of Grammar Terms. Edinburgh University Press, 2006


    Movement Operations With Echo Questions

    Consider the following dialogue:
    A: He had said someone would do something.
    B: He had said who would do what?

    Speaker B largely echoes what Speaker A says, except for replacing someone by who and something by what. For obvious reasons, the type of question produced by speaker B is called an echo question.

    However, speaker B could alternatively have replied with a non-echo question like, "Who had he said would do what?"

    If we compare the echo question He had said who would do what? with the corresponding non-echo question Who had he said would do what?, we find that the latter involves two movement operations which are not found previously. One is an auxiliary inversion operation by which the past-tense auxiliary had is moved in front of its subject he. The other is a wh-movement operation by which the wh-word who is moved to the front of the overall sentence, and positioned in front of had.
    Andrew Radford, English Syntax: An Introduction. Cambridge University Press, 2004

    Questioning a Question

    A speaker may question a question by repeating it with a rising intonation. Note that we use normal question structures with inverted word order, not indirect question structures, in this case.

    'Where are you going?' 'Where am I going? Home.'
    'What does he want?' 'What does he want? Money as usual.'
    'Are you tired?' 'Am I tired? Of course not.'
    'Do squirrels eat insects?' 'Do squirrels eat insects? I'm not sure.'
    Michael Swan, Practical English Usage. Oxford University Press, 1995

    Echo Question Resources

    Further, explore echo questions and how they are used in everyday dialogue by using the following resources from conversation analysis to speech act.