What is a Question?

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.".

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In grammar, a question is a type of sentence expressed in a form that requires—or at least 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. Linguists commonly recognize three main types of questions: yes/no questions (also known as polar questions), wh- questions, and alternative questions. In terms of syntax, a question is usually characterized by an inversion of the subject and the first verb in the verb phrase, beginning with an interrogative pronoun or ending with a tag question.

Intonation in Questions

What do questions sound like? In American English, you'll typically hear a rising intonation across the utterance for yes/so questions and a falling intonation for wh- questions. That said, the variation in these patterns in both American and British dialects is pretty diverse. 

Forming a Yes/No Question

In "A New Approach to English Grammar, on Semantic Principles," R.M.W. Dixon explains that in order to pose a yes/no question, you must move the first auxiliary verb, which bears a tense inflection, to the beginning of the clause.

For example, if we start with the sentence:

  • James was sitting in the dark.

by moving the auxiliary verb, the question becomes:

  • Was James sitting in the dark?

"There must be at least one verb in the auxiliary for question formation," Dixon explains. If there is no form of the verbs "have," "be," or a modal (a verb that combines with another verb to indicate mood or tense) in the clause, then a form of the verb "do" must be added to take the tense inflection. So, from the sentence:

  • John sat in the dark.

we get the question

  • Did John sit in the dark?

Forming a Wh- Question

The wh- questions are called that because the majority of them begin with words that start with those two letters: who, whom, whose, what, which, where, when, why—along with how.

When asking a wh- question, you're expecting a phrase or clause as an answer, rather than a simple "yes" or "no." In other words, you're seeking information. When forming a simple wh- question the same fronting is retained with the addition a wh- word of choice, which refers to the same constituent of the main clause and precedes the pre-posed auxiliary word. For example:

With the exchange of the word "who" for "Leo"

  • Leo was kissing Mary becomes Who was kissing Mary? 

With the exchange of the word "when" for "yesterday"

  • Theo fell yesterday becomes When did Theo fall?

With the exchange of the word "what" for "poetry"

  • Roberta recited poetry becomes What did Roberta recite?

Forms of wh- questions that rely on additions rather than replacements are generally seeking further clarification:

  • Why was Leo kissing Mary?
  • How did Theo fall yesterday?
  • Where did Roberta recite poetry?

Says Dixon, "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."

That means that for the sentence: He owes his success to hard work,

  • What does he owe his success to? and To what does he owe his success?

are both correct forms of the corresponding question.

Alternative Questions

Alternative questions offer a closed choice between two or more answers. In fact, one of the most famous questions ever posed in the English language: "To be or not to be?" from William Shakespeare's "Hamlet" (Act III, Scene 1) is indeed this very type of question.

In conversation, such questions typically end with a falling intonation. Other names for alternative questions include nexus questions, closed questions, choice questions, either/or questions, and multiple-choice questions.

Multiple-choice questions are a form of an alternative question with a larger pool of possible answers than a simple either/or. While the choices are still limited, not only are there more than two possible answers, depending on the question, there may be more than one possible correct answer.

One final type of alternative question is one that often comes up in the classroom and is used by teachers to help students reexamine theories or ideas they have presented to come up with alternative conclusions to those they've reached.

For example, if a student has written a paper citing Hitler's rise to power as the main causal factor for World War II, his professor might pose the following alternative question.

  • "Supposing, as you have stated, that Hitler's rise precipitated the Second World War, but was that factor the only reason for the conflict?"

Note that the teacher includes the student's hypothesis in her question, and is asking the student to expand his idea as well as to provide alternative facts to bolster the original argument.

Sources

  • Dixon, R.M.W. "A New Approach to English Grammar, on Semantic Principles." Oxford University Press, 1991
  • Denham, Kristin; Lobeck, Anne. "Linguistics for Everyone." Wadsworth, 2010