Asking Questions

This post is written with upper-intermediate and advanced learners of English in mind.

In this post I look at the type of construction used in English for constructing the majority of questions. I refer to this type of construction as the “Question Construction”, and other grammar constructions as “normal grammar”.

The Question Construction causes a lot of problems for learners.

One of the difficulties for learners is that sometimes the Question Construction should not be used. The first main part of this post, below, will explain when the Question Construction can, should, or should not be used. To begin with, I will cover questions about the identities of the subjects and objects of the sentences; then I will cover “yes/no” questions, and lastly other types of questions.

The second part of this post will explain how to construct the Question Construction, ending with a summary.

Lastly there are a couple of sentences touching on the reasons that I wrote this post.

 

▼ ▼ ▼ Questions about the identities of the subjects of the sentences ▼ ▼ ▼

Here are some example statements:-

Some vegetables produce good chips.

Some of us like chips.

Some people eat chips.

We may want more information about the identities of the subjects, rather than the objects of the sentences. (In this case, the subjects that we want information about are “Some vegetables”, “Some of us”, and “Some people”; we are not asking for information about the identities of the chips.)

If we want more information about the identities of the subjects, we must construct the questions using normal grammar, not the Question Construction. The correctly-constructed question examples below use this “normal grammar” – the same grammar construction as in the example statements above. These example questions are requests for further information about the identities of the subjects, from the example statements above:-

What vegetables produce good chips?

What kinds of potatoes produce good chips?

How many kinds of potatoes produce good chips?

Which potatoes produce good chips?

Who likes chips?

How many of us like chips?

Which nationalities around the world eat chips?

Who eats chips?

What percentage of children eat chips?

 

▼ ▼ ▼ Questions about the identities of the objects of the sentences ▼ ▼ ▼

Here are some example statements:-

You saw someone yesterday.

You’re doing something tomorrow.

The person who produced the statements may want more information about the identities of the objects, rather than the subjects of the sentences. (In this case, the objects that we want information about are “someone” and “something”; we are not asking for information about the identities of “you”.)

If we want more information about the identities of the objects, we normally use the Question Construction:-

Who did you see yesterday?

What are you doing tomorrow?

Instructions for producing the Question Construction appear later on in this post.

If you use normal grammar, the sentences sound abruptly surprised, or shocked. The speaker of these sentences has probably just been told the answer, but wants the other person to confirm. The speaker may think they have misunderstood:-

You saw who yesterday? (most likely type of meaning → [So, you have just told me that you saw (Donald Trump) yesterday. That’s a big surprise! Tell me again what happened.] )

You’re doing what tomorrow? (most likely type of meaning → [So, you have just told me that you’re going to (North Korea) tomorrow. That’s shocking! Tell me again what you are doing tomorrow.] )

To repeat, if we want more information about the identities of the objects, we normally need to use the Question Construction.

 

▼ ▼ ▼ “Yes/No” questions ▼ ▼ ▼

In this post I use the term “yes/no” questions to refer to questions for which the answer can be, or is likely to be, “Yes” or “No”. These questions can also be answered in many other ways, e.g. “I don’t know.”, “Maybe.”, “It doesn’t matter”, etc. They are not questions of the above types (about the identities of the subjects or objects of the sentences).

Canonical constructions of yes/no questions use the Question Construction:-

Are you going out tonight?

However, it is often acceptable or even commonplace to use “normal” grammar. This may appear less or more like a question, depending on the speaker’s tone of voice, but it any case it seems to demand a correction if the the person isn’t going out tonight:-

You’re going out tonight?  (✓) (often not appropriate – see below. If spoken, this sentence could be mis-interpreted as a statement.)

A question tag can be used with “normal” grammar (only in yes/no questions) to clear up any misunderstanding about whether the utterance is intended to be a question or not:-

You’re going out tonight, aren’t you?(sometimes not appropriate – see below.)

In some situations, using normal grammar seems wrong, so you need to use the question construction:-

●  In a formal piece of writing
●  In writing where you want to make it clear that it’s a question (e.g. a title of a piece of writing)
●  In speaking, when the question is unexpected. The Question Construction announces early on that the sentence is a question.
●  In speaking, when you are trying to emphasise that you really don’t know the answer, and you want an answer.

To summarise the above, when we want to ask a yes/no question, it’s almost always appropriate to use the Question Construction; if you don’t use the Question Construction, there is a significant likelihood that the grammar is “wrong”.

 

▼ ▼ ▼ Other types of question ▼ ▼ ▼

All other questions generally need the Question Construction. Without the Question Construction, the grammar sounds wrong (i.e. the grammar is wrong), or the implication is that the speaker is abruptly surprised, or shocked, and already knows the answer, and wants the other person to confirm.

Examples:-

When did you go to bed?

When you went to bed? X The listener or reader treats this, without the question mark, as the first part of a longer sentence, and expects more words, e.g. “When you went to bed, I heard a strange noise.” or “When you went to bed, were you tired?”

You went to bed when? (most likely type of meaning → [So, you have just told me that you went to bed at 6:00 a.m. That’s not good! Tell me again when you went to bed.] )

How fast was the car travelling?

How fast the car was travelling? X The listener or reader treats this, without the question mark, as the first part of a longer sentence, and expects more words, e.g. “How fast the car was travelling was 50 mph.” Alternatively, “How fast the car was travelling” could be a title of a section of a report about an accident.

The car was travelling how fast? (most likely type of meaning → [So, you have just told me that the car was travelling at 100 m.p.h. That’s terrible! Tell me again how fast the car was travelling.] )

Why is there still poverty?

Why there is still poverty? X The listener or reader treats this, without the question mark, as the first part of a longer sentence, and expects more words, e.g. “Why there is still poverty is because there is too much unregulated capitalism.” Or “Why there is still poverty” could be the title of a magazine article.

There is still poverty why? X The grammar is wrong here. (This would be OK: There is still poverty. Why?)

To summarise the above, use the Question Construction for these other questions, and, in fact for all, or almost all, questions, except questions about the identities of the subjects of the sentences.

 

▼ ▼ ▼ How we produce the Question Construction ▼ ▼ ▼

For ease of reading above, I have only discussed simpler sentences, with only one clause in each example sentence. The Question Construction should (normally) be used in only one clause (the “main” clause) in a sentence. For example:-

When you went to the concert, did you see my Mum?(The main clause is “did you see my Mum?” The other clause, “When you went to the concert”, is in normal grammar. The question is not asking about timing.)

To repeat, use the Question Construction in one clause for all questions, except questions about the identities of the subjects.

Any question clause that uses the Question construction contains the following elements in order.

(0. There may be extra words or clauses at the beginning e.g. “On Sunday…..” or “On the Sunday that it snowed a lot……”)

1. The question word(s) (e.g. Who, What, Why, When, How, Where). This element is missed out in Yes/No questions; otherwise this element is normally one word. Examples of more than one word are “Which products”, “What kinds of music”, “How many kinds of flowers”, “What proportion of files”, and “for which reason”. In the case of a question about the identity of the object, the question word or phrase represents the object.

2a. The first verb. This element is never missed out. This is normally a modal verb. The fact that it’s normally a modal verb is most relevant in the past and present simple, when “do” is used if the main verb is not “am”, “is”, “are”, “was” or “were”. An example of this is as follows: A positive statement is “The marathon happened yesterday.” But “happen” is not a modal verb, and there are no other (modal) verbs, so “do” is used in the related question “When did the marathon happen?”

2b. “n’t” goes here, if used.

3a. The subject of the clause. This element is never missed out.

3b. “not” goes here, if used. (Not in combination with 2b!)

4. All the other verbs. This element is missed out if the main verb is “am”, “are”, “is”, “was” or “were”. No 3rd person [-s] here. No past simple forms here. (e.g. no “gave”)

5. All the other words (if any).

6. At the end of a written question, a question mark (?)

Example:-

1. Why

2a. can

2b. ’t

3. hospitals

4. be given

5. more money next year

6. ?

(“Why can’t hospitals be given more money next year?” ✓ )

One of the difficulties for learners is deciding whether a preposition should go at the beginning of element 1 or somewhere in element 5. In some cases both positions are OK:-

1. In what bag

2. did

3. you

4. put

5. the shampoo

6. ?

(“In what bag did you put the shampoo?” ✓ )

1. What bag

2. did

3. you

4. put

5. the shampoo in

6. ?

(“What bag did you put the shampoo in?” ✓ )

 

▼ ▼ ▼ Question Construction – summary ▼ ▼ ▼

Use for all questions (question clause), except questions about the identity of the subject of the clause.

** = compulsory element

1. Question word(s) (No word for Yes/No questions)

**2a. 1st verb

( 2b. n’t )

**3a. Subject

( 3b. not )

4. All the other verbs (No word if the main verb is am… or was…)

5. All the other words

6. ?

 

▼ ▼ ▼ Why I wrote this post ▼ ▼ ▼

The core reason for writing this post is to provide a reasonably full general explanation of how to produce the type of construction that is used in most English questions. I have not seen such an explanation in any grammar books, although many of them do expand in great detail on specific points raised above.