Monday 26 March 2012

What are questions for?

Authoritative grammars of the English language usually say that questions ask for information. As an example of a question they tend to give a polar question – one where the answer is likely to be a simple yes or no – with an interrogative form, where the subject comes after the auxiliary verb.  A typical example would be can elephants swim? where the subject is elephants and the auxiliary verb is can.

Tanya Stivers’s research, though, found that although the interrogative form may indeed be the main question form when people are asking for information, in real life spontaneous conversations people mainly use questions for other purposes.

Stivers analysed 350 questions from 17 video-taped conversations between speakers of American English. Most of the questions (230 in fact) were polar, requiring a simple yes or no response, but most of these polar questions were not in the interrogative form. Instead, they were mainly simple declarative utterances, such as elephants can swim. Usually, but by no means always, they were uttered with rising intonation. Declarative questions made up 63 per cent of the polar questions – twice as many as interrogatives. A small number of questions (just 6 per cent) consisted of a final tag that turned an utterance into a question (such as huh in not bad for free huh?).

About a quarter of the questions began with a question word such as who, when or where. The most frequent question word was what, usually asking about something that had just been said or about objects close at hand (for example, asking what’s this?) Another form of question had two full questions joined by or, such as were you happy or were you sad?

Speakers of English, then, have a variety of resources for asking a question. They can design a question that would give a yes or no response, or a question beginning with a question word that would expect a longer response, or a question that presents a forced choice between two alternatives. Despite this potential variety, though, they seem to prefer to ask a yes/no question.

What about the functions of questions? Of course, people did ask for information sometimes. All the different question forms were used for this purpose, especially polar questions and questions beginning with a question word. But people mainly used questions for other kinds of social actions, such as making sure they’d understood what their interlocutor had just said, or looking for agreement, or making a suggestion.  All the possible question forms were used to ask for information, but when people were checking what their interlocutor had meant or when they were looking for agreement they were more likely to use a declarative form. When they used a tag question, it was almost always to ask for agreement. Thus the relation between the form of a question and its function can reveal what kind of social action the speaker is performing and what kind of response they are expecting.

Almost all the questions asked during the conversations received an appropriate reply. Very few replies were of the I don’t know or I can’t remember type, or even maybe or probably. Stivers argues, therefore, that addressees are providing the social action requested by the speaker. By giving a reply that matches the bias of the question, addressees accept the speaker’s terms rather than insisting on their independence, and maintain the cooperative nature of social interaction.
Stivers, Tanya (2010). An overview of the question-response system in American English.  Journal of Pragmatics 42: 2772-2781.

doi 10.1016/j.pragma.2010.04.011

This summary was written by Jenny Cheshire

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