By Andreea Calude 27/09/2017

Not every question is made equal

7am. Early. I am grumpy and not just at the prospect of the 48h journey we are about to embark on across the world, from London to Auckland. I need coffee. As I enter the café below our apartment, a female voice greets me: “What can I get you?” I stare blankly. It’s a café. It’s early. Coffee. Coo-ffee. Except of course there’s (yes, I am comfortable with using “there’s” here – a post for another day) a billion types of coffee (they even do flat whites in this part of the world nowadays). A simple question, yet the answer is slow in coming.

According to new research, it is ok that I find such questions difficult. They are. Not every question is made equal and the “social economics theory of questions” can help explain some of these differences.

In an article in the current issue of “Journal of Pragmatics”, German linguist Peter Siemund carefully analyses (manually!) more than 4,000 naturally occuring questions in British English to show that questions like “What can I get you?” (termed constituent or content questions) are generally less common in conversation than questions like “Would you like a coffee?” (termed polar questions, or yes-no questions). The former question requires a “constituent” answer, whereas the latter only a mere “yes/no” (or grunt if asking a teenager). Why should this be?

Some answers to some questions

A proposal made in 2012 by Stephen Levinson (mentioned in an earlier post in relation to politeness) suggests that constituent questions are socially more costly than polar questions. If information is understood as a commodity, like money, then constituent questions are expensive grammatical structures because they elicit more complex information from an interlocuter and thus have the potential to cause greater imposition to them, maybe putting them on the spot (and thus annoying them) or worse, betraying the asker’s ignorance on a matter they should already be knowledgeable about. By comparison, a polar question is the smallest incremental way of asking for information using an interrogative form – sometimes in the hope that additional details will follow. A very innocent and unassuming request.

Siemund’s empirical work backs up Levinson’s proposal that speakers shy away from consitutent questions and prefer the “cheaper” polar questions. At least in conversation. Things are not quite so simple in writing and the finding does not hold in this genre.

Eliciting information is not always done by opening the grammatical toolkit, that is, by means of interrogative clauses. I wonder who is in charge here. It turns out that there are even “cheaper” alternatives via indirectness, for example, declarative questions (or queclaratives), in Siemund’s own words “questions in declarative clothing” (page 17). Also, not every question is out looking for information; interrogatives may be used as threats (Who do you think you are?), suggestions (Did you call mum yet?) or even offers (Can I tempt you with some cake?). In fact, if you knew anything about basic clause types: declaratives (for expressing facts), interrogatives (for asking questions), imperatives (for wishes and commands), you might be surprised to learn that this neat pairing of form and function (called the “literal force hypothesis”) has been short of abandoned by some linguists. They argue that it is all about context and inference, particularly in conversation, and the pairing is in fact a many-to-many rather than a one-to-one. But Siemund’s paper does actually back the “literal force hypothesis” and his analysis of interrogatives confirms that a great majority are actually used to elicit information. Phew. No need to rewrite the textbooks just yet.

Hungry for more?

Another fascinating idea has to do with something that Siemund’s paper cannot explain. His analysis shows that there is a hierarchy in the frequency-of-use of question words, stupidly called “wh-words” because in English spelling, they start with the letters “wh”– an rather useless term since no other language uses “wh” for its question words. Linguists love hierarchies and it is my personal belief that stumbling upon a linguistic hierarchy will allow any linguist a seat at the eternal linguistics table. Siemund’s hierarchy of frequency of wh-words in over 4,000 interrogatives shows the following cline:


MOST FREQUENT >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>> LEAST FREQUENT

what > how > why > who > where > when > which > whose


And here’s the fun part. There is no reasonable explanation for this particular ordering. A cross-linguistic study by J. Lachlan Mackenzie (2009) shows a link between wh-word complexity (how long a wh-word might be in units of meaning – morphemes) and semantic complexity – yes another hierarchy:


LESS COMPLEX >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>> MORE COMPLEX

individual > location > time > manner > quantity > reason

MORE CONCRETE >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>MORE ABSTRACT


So languages generally code with longer words (morphologically more complex) that which is more abstract. This makes sense: you invest more linguistic resources in something that is harder to understand or cognitively more taxing. Such a nice symmetry is what linguists term “iconicity”.

But Siemund’s frequency-of-use hierarchy of wh-words does not fit Mackenzie’s cross-linguistic predictions. The high frequency of “why” (reason – a complex idea, often expressed by longer more complex wh-words in many languages) is a complete surprise. “Why” is the rabbit out of the hat! I’d love to know whether the frequencies found by Siemund for English wh-words (as used in questions – not in other constructions) are matched in other languages.



Levinson, Stephen, 2012. Interrogative intimations: on a possible social economics of interrogatives. In: de Ruiter, Jan (Ed.), Questions: Formal, Functional and Interactional Perspectives. Cambridge University Press, New York, pp. 11–32.

Mackenzie, Lachlan, 2009. Content interrogatives in a sample of 50 languages. Lingua 119: 1131-1163.

Siemund, Peter. 2017. Interrogative clauses in English and the social economics of questions. Journal of Pragmatics 119: 15-32.

0 Responses to “The Freakonomics of questions”

  • I recently watched a Michael McIntyre sketch where he was commenting on the strangeness of the Australia greeting question “How’re ya going?” He recalled being taken aback when he went to a Qantas checkin counter and was greeted this way, and replied, confused “By plane, I hope”. 🙂

    • I love this! So another use for questions: social normative behaviour (greetings), but here, the response is humorous rather than informative (or formulaic). Nice example!