Question Types and Functions

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2007

27 Pages, Grade: 2,3


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Questions: A defintion and classification

3. Yes/No Questions

4. Wh – Questions

5. Alternative Questions

6. Exclamatory Questions

7. Question and Illocutionary Act

8. Conclusion

9. Bibliography

1. Introduction

In traditional grammar books question types as well as spoken (or written) interaction are explained very theoretically, far from being practically orientated and therefore often not applicable to interaction in practice. While in grammar books sentence structure is always precisely ordered, in naturally occurring spoken language we often deal with syntactically incomplete utterances which are not exactly arranged as described in grammar books Furthermore, the most important difference between theory and real life is that grammar books focus on form is described rather than function. (see Weisser, 2002:3). From these differences several problems arise which I will examine in this paper.

In the first section I will give a general definition of the term question as well as a classification of question types according to Quirk et al. (1985). In the second part I will analyse each question type by working out the differences between the theory of Quirk et al. (1985) and Tsui (1992). On the one hand, I will always compare the theory of Quirk et al. with the contrastive, more practically orientated theory of Tsui. On the other hand, I will substantiate Tsui’s theory with examples from the trainline corpus in order to demonstrate that her analysis is correct. Further, I will analyse to which extent the trainline examples are applicable to the theories.

Although Quirk et al.’s analysis is more extensive, I will concentrate on the items which can be compared with Tsui’s investigation. Consequently, some aspects will remain unanalysed in my examination.

2. Questions: A definition and classification

Firstly, Quirk et al. (1985:804) define questions as a semantic class which is “primarily used to seek information on a specific point”. In contrast, Tsui (1992:89) states that “sometimes an utterance is identified as a ‘question’ because it is interrogative in form and sometimes because it expects an answer or some verbal performance from the addressee”. Tsui (ibid.) points out that in the studies “the term ‘question’ is sometimes taken as a syntactic category and sometimes a discourse category; as a result, the term remains vague and ill – defined.” In contrast, Tsui (op. cit.:90) rather considers the classification in terms of function.

Secondly, Quirk et al. (1985:806) suggest to divide questions into three major classes “according to the type of reply they expect”:

The first type, called “Yes/No questions”, expects an “affirmation or negation“, for example

(1) Have you finished the book? (ibid.).

The second type, called „ Wh – questions“, expects „a reply from an open range of replies“, for example

(2) What is your name? (ibid.).

The third type, called „alternative questions“, expects „as the reply one of two or more options presented in the question“, for example

(3) Would you like to go for a WÁLK or stay at HÒME? (ibid.).

Tsui’s contrastive examination is based on this classification but she investigates each type in terms of function rather than form. By this, she establishes a more practically orientated approach focused on the response rather than the question itself. In my examination I will use Tsui’s analysis as a basis for the following analysis as her investigation actually stresses the differences.

3. Yes/No Questions

According to Quirk et al. (op. cit.:807), yes/no questions are characterised by several features. Firstly, they are “usually formed by placing the operator before the subject and giving the sentence a rising intonation”:

(4) Has the boat LÉFT?

(5) Is Ann writing a PÁPer?

In this connection, Quirk et al. (ibid.) emphasise that “rising intonation is the norm for yes – no questions, but falling intonation occurs quite frequently”.

As also stated by Quirk et al. (ibid.), the operator do is introduced “if there is no item in the verb phrase.” But the main verbs be and have also function as operators:

(6) Do they live in Sydney?

Secondly, Quirk et al. (op. cit.:808) divide the class of yes/no questions into four subtypes. The first subtype, positive yes/no questions, is characterised by usually containing nonassertive forms such as any, ever etc. similar to negative statements (see ibid.). Quirk et al. (ibid.) also point out that “the question containing such forms is generally neutral, with no bias in expectation towards a positive or negative response”. In other words, “neutral polarity […] leaves open whether the answer is ‘yes’ or ‘no’” (Tsui, 1992:90). In addition, neutral questions are not conducive (see Quirk et al., 1985:808). In the following examples of questions, taken from Quirk et al. (ibid.), nonassertive forms are always used:

(7) Did anyone call last night?

(8) Has the boat left yet ?

(9) Do you live anywhere near Dover?

(10) Do you suppose any of the class will ask any boring questions?

Further, according to Quirk et al. (ibid.), a yes/no question can also be biased towards a positive or negative answer. If, for example, assertive forms are used such as someone, already, somewhere etc., the question is biased towards a positive answer and has positive orientation (see Tsui, 1992:90). Quirk et al. (1985:808) designate this kind of yes/no questions to be conducive. Conducive questions “indicate that the speaker has reason to believe that the answer is ‘yes’” (Tsui, 1992:90). By using this kind of question, the speaker is asking for confirmation of his or her assumption (see ibid.). In the following examples the speaker expects a positive answer:

(11) Did someone call last night?

(12) Has the boat left already ?

(13) Do you live somewhere near Dover? (Quirk et al., 1985:808).

A negative answer to a positively orientated question would be contrary to the expectation.

By using nonassertive forms, positive questions may also have negative orientation, for example

(14) Do you really want to leave now? (ibid.).

The second subtype comprises negative yes/no questions. In contrast to the former subtype, they contain negative forms, have a negative orientation and are always conducive (see ibid.):

(15) Aren’t you joining us this evening?

(16) Hasn’t he told you what to do?

(17) Have they never invited you home?

(18) Has nobody called?

Quirk et al. (ibid.) emphasise that

negative orientation is complicated by an element of surprise or disbelief. The implication is that the speaker had originally hoped for a positive response, but new evidence now suggests that the response will be negative. […] there is a combining of a positive and a negative attitude, which one may distinguish as the OLD EXPECTATION (positive) and NEW EXPECTATION (negative).

In this context, Quirk et al. (op. cit.:809) remark that negatively orientated questions “often express disappointment or annoyance” because “the old expectation tends to be identified with the speaker’s hopes or wishes”, for example:

(19) Can’t you drive straight?

[I’d have thought you’d be able to, but apparently you can’t.]

(20) Aren’t you ashamed of yourself?

[You ought to be, but it appears you’re not.]

Additionally, they point out that, on the one hand, the use of nonassertive items in a negative question causes negative orientation, for example:

(21) Hasn’t the boat left yet ?

(22) Didn’t he recognize you either ? (see ibid., ibid.).

On the other hand, if assertive items are used, a negative question is biased towards positive orientation:

(23) Didn’t someone call last night?

(24) Hasn’t the boat left already ?

(25) Didn’t he recognize you too ? (see ibid., ibid.).

Tsui (1992:90) uses Quirk et al.’s analysis of yes/no questions as the basis of her examination which should help to clarify the “vague and ill – defined” term (op. cit.:89). From Quirk et al.’s previous investigation she discovers three problems.

To address the first problem, Tsui (op. cit.:90) stresses concerning the classification that there should only be three classes of questions if it is established on the basis of the answer they expect: one class expecting a ‘yes’ answer, a second expecting a ‘no’ answer and a third with no expectations”. Here she underlines that “there are three classes of questions only in terms of the predicted form of the answer. In terms of the communicative choice realised by the answer, there are only two classes of questions” (ibid.). This is supported by the fact that a “‘yes’ answer to a positively biased question realises the same communicative choice of confirming the speaker’s assumption or expectation as a ‘no’ answer to a negatively biased question” (ibid.). She substantiates her assertion by an example of a negatively biased question which can be answered by ‘yes’ or ‘no’:

(26) You mean he didn’t recognize you?

(‘yes’ answer = you are right, he didn’t recognize me

‘no’ answer = you are right, he didn’t recognize me) (ibid.).

Caused by the fact that both answers realise a confirmation (they confirm the speakers assumption), according to Tsui (ibid.), “both negatively and positively biased questions belong to the same functional class: questions whose discourse function is to elicit confirmation”. Tsui’s previous analysis substantiates that she considers the classification in terms of function or communicative choice in contrast to Quirk et al. who rather consider it in terms of form.

To address the second problem, concerning the function or the communicative choice realised by the expected answer, a ‘yes’ response can have different functions which can be demonstrated with the help of the following two questions taken from Tsui (op. cit.:91):

(27) Have you been to Paris? - Yes, I have been to Paris.

(= supplies information)

(28) Has the boat left ALREADY?Yes, your assumption is correct.

(= confirms the speaker’s assumption).

Resulting from this, Tsui (ibid.) states that “the difference between these two questions is not so much that one has neutral polarity and the other has biased polarity, but rather that one seeks information and the other seeks confirmation”. For this reason, questions such as ‘Have you been to Paris?’ are similar to wh - questions which seek information such as ‘What country have you been to?’ (see ibid., ibid.). Tsui (ibid.) explains her opinion by the existence of the English yes/no answering system which misleads us to believe “that the function of questions like ‘Have you been to Paris?’ is to elicit a ‘yes’ answer (hence for confirmation) or a ‘no’ answer (hence for disconfirmation) and therefore have a different function from wh – questions”.

Tsui’s (ibid.) previous classification into two groups, one being similar to wh - questions as seeking information, and the other seeking confirmation, can be substantiated by examples from the trainline dialogues:

(29) A. 37: # <2s> now do you want me to book this ticket for you

B. 38: yes please (Trainline_orig. dialogues:cg100016.txt).

Here, the speaker seeks information from the addressee.

In contrast, the following example rather confirms the speaker’s assumption. Hence, based on Tsui’s (1992:91) previous differentiation, it belongs to the questions which seek confirmation:

(30) B. 2 : yeah i just have a question first before i i purchase my ticket # erm to get the saver return to {station}London erm from {station}Preston # right leaving Friday coming back Sunday # erm the 51 pounds # do i need to specify train times # or is that # can i just get it for that d … do i just purchase it for that day for those days

A. 3: [right (op. cit.:cg100018.txt).

In example (30) the addressee (A) confirms the speaker’s (B) assumption by giving a response in the sense of ‘you are right’ or ‘your assumption is right’. Consequently, although it looks as if in both examples the questions can be responded by a simple positive answer (‘yes’) as suggested by Quirk et al. (1985:808), a precise analysis based on Tsui’s (1992:91) differentiation shows that her assertion is correct.

Moreover, whereas Quirk et al. (1985:808) claim that neutral polarity yes/no questions elicit a positive (‘yes’) or a negative (‘no’) response, Tsui (1992:91) states that “they do not necessarily expect either a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer”. Because of this, Tsui (see ibid.) classifies neutral polarity questions to rather belong to information seeking questions. She supports her opinion by the following example which does actually not expect either a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer:


Excerpt out of 27 pages


Question Types and Functions
Technical University of Chemnitz
Hauptseminar "Pragmatics"
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ISBN (eBook)
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Der Dozent hätte sich noch kritischere Analyse gewünscht und eine kritischere Hinterfragung der Ansichten der Verfasser der zugrundeliegenden Quellen
Question, Types, Functions, Hauptseminar, Pragmatics
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Corinna Roth (Author), 2007, Question Types and Functions, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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