Look at these five wh-
questions. What information is being sought? How are the questions
formed--and how are they alike or different from each other in their formation?
Analyze each for subject and predicate.
What do you see in example #2? The subject is what, and the predicate is everything else. The question is about the subject of the sentence: something causes students to select particular majors. The question is formed by putting the wh- word what into the subject position. No other changes are needed to make a question--other than the question mark, of course.
What about example #3? The subject of the sentence is John. The predicate is will ask someone for information about summer courses. The total sentence that lies behind the question: John will ask someone for information about summer courses. The unknown information is the direct object of the verb will ask. The formation gets more complicated in this situation:
Step #1 Insert the wh- word into the sentence: John will ask who for information about summer courses?What about example #4? The subject of the sentence is we. The predicate is can register for graduation some time. The whole sentence that lies behind the question: We can register for graduation some time. The question is about the adverbial of time. The speaker knows everything but the time/date. Again, the formation is more complicated than in examples #1 and #2; the process is the same as for example #3.
Step #1 Insert the wh- word into the sentence: We can register for graduation when?What about example #5? The subject of the sentence is we. The predicate is go somewhere to register for graduation. The question is about the adverbial of location/place. The whole sentence that lies behind the question: We go somewhere to register for graduation. For this example, the process in examples #3 and #4 is followed but with another complication because of the missing operator.
Step #1 Insert the wh- word into the sentence: We go where to register for graduation?What generalizations can we take away from these examples?
1. Wh- questions are formed by inserting a wh- word into a sentence in the place of missing information.
Analyze the following
examples. The general pattern of the syntax will be like other wh-
questions. But what part of the sentence is the focus on the question?
Why is whom used in the 4th example?
#1. Whose car is blocking the entrance to the store? When we reformulate the question to see what sentence lies behind it, we get: someone's car is blocking the driveway. We can talk about this as a question about the determiner or about the possessive. Someone's car is the subject of the sentence. Thus, whose can be added and no change in word order is needed.
#2a. Which textbook was used in SLA last summer? Like #1, this question focuses on the noun phrase and asks for more details about that noun phrase but not the possessive. Try to explain how #2b differs from #2a.
#3. How carefully have you considered your future career? This question is asking for an intensifier--very carefully, too carefully, not carefully enough. Because it is not the subject of the sentence, insertion of the wh- word is followed by the word order changes required for non-subject wh- questions.
#4. To whom did you send your job application? Use of whom is rare--and very formal and a bit school-teacher-ish. But, let's analyze this example to see how the grammar works. What's the sentence that lies behind the question? What function does to play in that sentence? What steps are required to get from the sentence to the question? After you've worked out your answer, click here to see mine.
#5. What did you do last summer? What is this question about? What's the meaning and function of the full verb do in this question? After you've worked out your answer, click here to see mine.
When we look at the
steps that we go through to form wh- questions, especially the
questions that are about things other than the subject of the sentence,
we start to see some very familiar language. Some of those intermediate
steps sound a lot like the questions that are produced by our ESL/EFL
students. Look at the following:
Learning to ask wh- questions requires two things of students: they must learn the correct words to use, and they must learn the word order for two different types of wh- questions. As students learn to apply these features of wh- questions, they get parts right and parts not-quite-right and parts wrong as natural stages along the way to fluent and accurate question asking. Steps #1 and #4 are ones that native speakers and advanced NNS use. Steps #2 and #3 show a student who is trying out new grammar.
Students can have another step along the way in questions like What you did do last summer? Here the speaker has all the right words but not the right word order.
A student can fully understand the rules but not yet be able to produce accurately formed questions under the time, energy, emotional stress of speech--but can get the formation right on a written test with time for monitoring her/his production. Or, the student could not have the rules right yet for a variety of reasons: a student might have heard the form but not had instruction about it, or a student might have had instruction and not understood it, or a student might have had bad instruction, or a student might had had good instruction but mis-understood it to form a new rule that's not quite English. That is, learners will produce language like Steps #2 and #3 for a variety of reasons as they learn to ask questions. These errors are well motiviated--they are not random but are attempts to apply the rules of English as then understood by the learner.
Later in this lecture, we'll think about ways to teach students to be effective users of questions, including both yes-no and wh- questions. I look forward to learning more about your ideas on this important topic.
Please email me your questions and comments. Thanks.