Friday, March 16, 2007

Different kinds of questions

Recently I was speaking with a colleague about her plans for her new low-level class. When she said that she intended to focus on question formation for the first few weeks, I asked her with some trepidation how she would be sequencing the various kinds of questions. It turned out that she didn't know what the various kinds of questions were. And she wasn't the first.

Broadly, there are yes/no questions (e.g., Is it hot in here?) and so-called wh-questions (e.g., Where do you live?). Leaving aside minor forms such as tags (e.g., It's hot, isn't it) and echoes ( e.g., You're what?) Yes/no questions can be divided into those with a need for do support and those without.

If the corresponding affirmative form of the question has only a lexical verb and no auxiliary verb, then the question form requires the insertion of (do) before the subject.
  • He likes this. -> Does he like this?
  • He went to Halifax. -> Did he go to Halifax?
In contrast, if the sentence has no lexical verb or includes an auxiliary, then do support is not required. Instead, the non-lexical verb is fronted (i.e., moved in front of the subject).
  • You will marry me. -> Will you marry me?
  • He is nice. -> Is he nice?
A similar difference exists in wh- questions; lexical verbs cannot be fronted, so, where fronting is required, do or another auxiliary is needed.
  • He plays in Etobicoke. -> Where does he play?
  • He has played in Etobicoke. -> Where has he played?
But, not all wh- questions are the same. The wh- words come in three flavours: pronoun (who, what), determinative (which, what), and adverb (where, when, why, how). The adverbs always require an auxiliary verb before the subject.
  • Where did he go?
  • How should I do it?
  • Why is that happening?
In contrast, question formation with the pronouns and determiners differs depending on whether the question is about the subject or about some other noun within the sentence. If the question relates to the subject, the result is the canonical subject-verb-object sentence.
  • The door went bang. -> What went bang?
  • Brett can get the pizza. -> Who can get the pizza?
  • This pencil is the best. -> Which pencil is the best?
Otherwise, you end up with the same situations as above with the adverbs.
  • I banged the door. -> What did you bang?
  • Brett can get the pizza for us. ->Who can Brett get the pizza for?
  • She likes that pencil. -> Which pencil does she like?
With all this to take into account, I wonder how a teacher could possibly plan a coherent set of lessons on question formation without understanding how questions are formed. Make no mistake; I don't blame my colleague. But I do worry about TESL training programs.


Hana said...

I was planning on doing question forms in a couple of weeks like the teacher you mention, and do have some idea of the different types, but I am not comfortable with working backwards from the answer every time.

It would take a lot of mental effort for someone to work out the answer, then create a question, and I'm sure native speakers don't do it, but I am trying to work out a way to make it automatic for students. The mechanics can be made clear, but using questions fluently is more of the challenge, I believe.

Brett said...

Good point Hana. I think what you want to do is chose a single type of question and really focus on that. Practice it for a while until students are comfortable with it and then, in a few weeks bring up another question type. At the same time, students should be memorizing classroom questions (like "how do you spell that?" or "what does ~ mean?") without analyzing them. When you actually treat the relevant question form in class, then refer to the memorized questions.