Question in Grammar

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

A scene from Jeopardy
On the television game show Jeopardy, contestants are told that "all answers must be in the form of a question.".

Beck Starr/WireImage/Getty Images

In grammar, a question is a type of sentence expressed in a form that requires (or appears to require) an answer. Also known as an interrogative sentence, a question is generally distinguished from a sentence that makes a statement, delivers a command, or expresses an exclamation.

In terms of syntax, a question is usually characterized by inversion of the subject and the first verb in the verb phrase, beginning with an interrogative pronoun or ending with a tag question.

Linguists commonly recognize three main types of questions: Yes-No Questions, Wh- Questions, and Alternative Questions.

Examples and Observations

  • "This is a question that no one particularly wants to hear, but, where did they put his head?"
    (Xander in "Teacher's Pet." Buffy the Vampire Slayer, 1997)
  • "I know this is a silly question before I ask it, but can you Americans speak any other language besides English?"​ (Diane Kruger as Bridget von Hammersmark in Inglourious Basterds, 2009)
  • "Question is, what did camouflaged robot mercenaries want with you? And how did you get inside the TARDIS?"​ (The Doctor in "The Runaway Bride." Doctor Who, 2005)

Structuring Questions

"To form a polar question (one expecting 'yes/no' as an answer), the first auxiliary verb, which bears a tense inflection, is moved to the front of the clause. Corresponding to John was eating the halva we get Was John eating the halva? There must be at least one verb in the auxiliary for question formation--if the VP contains none of have, be or a modal then do must be included to take the tense inflection; thus, corresponding to the statement John ate the halva, we get the question, Did John eat the halva? 

"A wh- question (expecting a phrase or clause as answer) involves the same fronting, and in addition a wh- word (who, whom, whose, what, which, how, why, where or when), which refers to the same constituent of the main clause, must precede the preposed auxiliary word. Compare John was hitting Mary with Who was hitting Mary? Mary arrived yesterday with When did Mary arrive? and John ate the halva with What did John eat? If the constituent being questioned had a preposition associated with it, then this may either be moved to initial position, before the wh- word, or it can be left in its underlying position in the clause. Thus, corresponding to He owes his success to hard work we can have either What does he owe his success to? or To what does he owe his success?"
(R.M.W. Dixon, A New Approach to English Grammar, on Semantic Principles. Oxford University Press, 1991)

Examples of Question Types

[In the following joke, the attorney's initial wh- ​question is followed by two yes-no questions and a final alternative question.]

"A woman went to an attorney to ask about a divorce.

"'What grounds do you have, madam?'

"'About six acres.'

"'No, I don't think you quite understand. Let me rephrase the question. Do you have a grudge?'

"'No, just a parking space.'"

"'l'll try again. Does your husband beat you up?'

"'No, l always get up at least an hour before he does.'

"The attorney could see he was fighting a losing battle. 'Madam, do you want a divorce or not?'

"'I'm not the one who wants a divorce,' she said. 'My husband does. He claims we don't communicate.'"
(adapted from The Mammoth Book of Humor, by Geoff Tibballs. Carroll & Graf, 2000)

Intonation in Questions

"American English typically has rising intonation across the utterance for what are called yes-no questions (She bought a new car?) and falling intonation for information-seeking questions (also called wh- questions) (What does she want to buy?), although there is much variation in these patterns in both American and British dialects."​ (Kristin Denham and Anne Lobeck, Linguistics for Everyone. Wadsworth, 2010)

Why Ads Use Questions

"Questions, like commands, imply a direct address to the reader--they require someone to answer. That's why they are often used on magazine covers, like these from one issue of Cosmopolitan:

At long last love. Are you sure it's the real thing?
THE CONDOM. What's in it for you?
Hired or fired? How to leave your job in style.

We take them as requiring a response, like a ringing phone. There is another more subtle effect questions can have--they can contain presuppositions that are almost impossible to discard if one interprets the text."​ (Greg Myers, Words in Ads. Routledge, 1994)

Questions as "Technologies in Disguise"

"Questions, then, are like computers or television or stethoscopes or lie detectors, in that they are mechanisms that give direction to our thoughts, generate new ideas, venerate old ones, expose facts or hide them."​ (Neil Postman, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. Alfred A. Knopf, 1992)