Questions in Context

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The Uses of Questions

We can approach the topic of the use of questions in context from two points of view: In the first, we analyze questions in terms of pragmatics and speech acts.  In the second, we look to corpus linguistics and other discourse studies to find out about the distribution of questions in different types of communication and about the other grammatical features that occur in the same settings with questions.

What are we trying to do when we ask a question?

How are questions used by speakers?  What are we trying to communicate?  Do questions always ask for information? 

In the 2nd edition of the Grammar Book, Celce-Murcia and Larsen-Freeman list some of the kinds of information that can be sought with wh-questions along with some of the settings where they are used.  Wh-questions, remember, are used to get specific information--who, what, when, where, why, and so on.  Here's what Celce-Murcia and Larsen-Freeman say about the importance of wh-questions in the lives of our students:

Importance of Wh-Questions to ESL/EFL Learners

Wh-questions are very important structures for ESL/EFL students.  They are used to request specific information, so that the need to use them arises often.  For instance, wh-questions are used in social interaction (What's your name?), for getting directions (Where's the post office?), in seeking explanations (Why is the plane late?), for eliciting vocabulary (What's this?), and so forth. Notice that while yes/no questions query an entire proposition, wh-questions are used when the speaker is missing one specific piece of information. (p. 241)

However, questions are used for many other purposes in addition to seeking information.  Consider the following use of a yes-no question:

Classroom Scenario

Teacher is returning papers to students.  She hands a paper to a student and says:  "Do you know how to use spell check?"

In this scenario, the teacher is probably not seeking information about the student's skill at using word processing but is commenting on the spelling errors in a paper and hinting that the student needs to be more careful in the future.  In Applied English Grammar, a grammar-writing textbook that I published, we start a chapter on "Questions and Commands: with a section called "Importance of Questions" and then immediately follow that with a section on "Purposes of Questions."  The purposes that we list include (1) seeking information, (2) giving an order or command, (3) making a request, (4) beginning a conversation, (5) making a comment on a situation, and (5) checking knowledge to find out if someone knows something accurately.  

Use of Yes-No Questions

Yes-No questions are defined in terms of their syntax and the expected answer.  That is, definitions specify that these questions involve a query about a whole sentence with the operator moved in front of the subject, rising intonation, and an expectation of an answer of "yes" or "no." 

You know how to use spell check = do you know how to use spell check?

However, yes-no questions are actually rarely answered with just "yes" or "no."  Or, let me say this in a more accurate way: yes-no questions are seldom asked with the expectation of getting just a "yes" or "no" answer. 

Another Scenario

I telephone the AL/ESL office to talk with Dr. Carson.  A student assistant answers the phone.

PatB:  Is Dr. Carson in?
Student Assistant: Yes.

And then nothing happens.  I realize that the student thinks that she's answered my question. She took the question as a request for information while I intended it as a request for action. So, I try again to get transferred to Dr. Carson.

PatB: Can I speak with her?  Would you please transfer me to her?  Thanks!

Student Assistant:  Sure.

Yes-no questions are often used as commands (as in the scenario) and often as conversation starters.  Look at the following dialogue.

At the New Student Orientation

PatB and a new student meet and are trying to find something to talk about.  They try "career plans."

PatB:  Have you ever taught outside the U.S.?
New Student: Yes, I worked in Japan with the JET program for a year and then stayed to work....

Once the topic seems to have some potential, then other more specific questions are appropriate:

How'd you like it?  Are you going back?  How's your Japanese? 

In sum, questions can be used to get new information, but they are very often used for other purposes.  So, students need opportunities to learn to ask and to respond to questions for purposes other than seeking information.

Where do we expect to find questions?

To help students learn about questions and the use of questions, we also need more information about the contexts where questions are used.  With this information, we can gather authentic examples and create authentic settings through which students can learn and practice.  We can guess some thing about question use in setting--classrooms are a sure bet and conversations.

In his study of the grammatical features of different types of communication, Biber (1988) found that wh-questions occurred in a cluster of grammatical features that characterize conversational English.  Here are the 23 grammatical items that often occur together in conversational use of English.  It's important to realize that Biber discovered these features through data analysis--he didn't just sit down and think them up.

Grammar Items that Occur Together in Conversational English

1. private verbs (think, believe, and other that we use to talk about our personal thoughts)

2. that deletion (I think she's a good student--a private verb with that deleted)

3. contractions

4. present tense verbs

5. 2nd person pronouns

6. DO as pro-verb (DO = does, does, did. Do you like coffee?  Yes, I do. The first do is an auxiliary; the 2nd is the pro-verb use.)

7. analytic negation (n't attached to a verb)

8. demonstrative pronouns (That's my idea.)

9. general emphatics (for sure, really)

10. 1st person pronouns

11. pronoun it

12. BE as a main verb (BE = am, is, are, was, were)

13. causative subordination (with because)

14. discourse particles (at the beginning of sentences---well, now, anyway)

15. indefinite pronouns (anyone, everyone, and others)

16. general hedges (at about, almost)

17. amplifiers (absolutely, certainly)

18. sentence relative (I had to go to work early, which made me really unhappy.)

19. Wh-questions

20. possibility modals (can, may, might could and contractions with them, too)

21. non-phrasal coordination (using and to connect whole clauses--stringing clauses together with and

22. Wh-clauses (I don't know when the concert starts.)

23. final prepositions (I don't know where he got to.)

Biber's point is that when you find one of these in a sample of discourse you are likely to find several of the others.  They show up together; together they create the "accent" of that type of communication.  The central type of communication that has these features is "live chat" with two or more people talking together in real time and in an exchange of utterances--back and forth dialogue.  However, many of these features can can found together in written English where the writer wants to connect to the reader as though in a conversation or in writing that attempts to imitate the features of spoken English.

Our initial question was "where do wh-questions occur"?  One important answer is "they occur in conversations as one of the signature features of interactive spoken communication and of writing that imitates speaking."

Questions in the Classroom

Another important answer is "in classrooms."  Asking and answering questions is at the center of many class sessions.  Asking and answering questions occurs not just in classroom interactions but also in email communication and in tests and quizzes. 

Teachers ask questions for a variety of purposes:  to gain information (Where's Jose? Is he coming to class today? What'd you do over the weekend?), to give instructions and commands (What page are we on now?  Would you please close the door?), to check information (What's the past tense of "write"?  When did Columbus discover America?). 

Students ask questions, too, of course: to gain information (When's the test?), to make requests (Can I borrow a pen?), to check information (Did she say the test is on Wednesday?!).  In a study that Janet Constantinides and I did of the language used in the teaching of college algebra, the most commonly asked question by students was "Test?" by which they meant "Is what you are talking about now going to be on the test?"  (Byrd & Constantinides, 1992).

Complete Questions or Shortened Versions?

That question--"Test?"--implies an important topic about questions in context.  When are the full forms used?  When are the short versions of questions preferred?  How often do we use what the Student's Grammar calls declarative questions--a statement with rising intonation? 

I don't have data here but an impression of conversations and classroom communication: very often, and maybe mostly, when we are communicating in real time, we use short forms where the full meaning of the question comes from context ("Test?"), and we use a lot of declarative questions ("The test will have essay questions?"). 

Full questions with complete subjects and predicates certainly occur:  If you are asking a stranger how to get to the library from the student center, you would at least start the conversation with something like "I'm new on campus.  I need to go to the library.  How do I get there from here?"  Now the response might very well be "Where?  the library? from here?" 

Full questions with complete subjects and predicates also are the norm in written questions--in textbooks and on examinations and quizzes.  

So, full questions are occuring in one kind of context, and the short forms occur in another kind of context.

Teaching Issues

Based on what we know about use of questions in context, how do you think we ought to go about helping our students be fluent and accurate in their question use?  How do we teach the appropriate use of the complete, full question?  How do we teach the appropriate use of the short forms?  What activities can we use to help students understand how questions are used?  What other activities can we use to help students practice both aspects of questions--getting the grammar right and the communicative purpose right, too?  Please email me your questions and comments. Thanks.


          Byrd, P. and Constantinides, J. (1992). The Language of the teaching of mathematics: Implications for training ITAs. TESOL Quarterly, 26 (1), 163-167. 

         Biber, D. (1988).  Variation across speech and writing.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 

         Biber, D., Johansson, S., Leech, G., Conrad, S., & Finegan, E. (1999). Longman grammar of spoken and written English. Edinburgh Gate, Harlow, England: Pearson Education Limited.

        Celce-Murcia, M. & Larsen-Freeman, D. (1999). The grammar book: An ESL/EFL teacher's course.  (2nd ed.)  Boston: Heinle & Heinle.