Any discussion of questions and questioning needs to distinguish between questions as a linguistic form and the various social actions that are accomplished through this form. Questions, or “interrogatives,” can be formed in a variety of ways. One type of question uses a specific question word: “which,” “when,” “why,” “where,” “who,” “whose,” “whom,” or “how,” forming what is called a wh-question, e.g., “Who was that lady?,” “Where did you play basketball?,” “Met whom?” Another question type is the yes/no question, i.e., a question to which a “yes” or “no” answer is generally expected. These questions are usually formed in English by inversion of subject and auxiliary, e.g., “Is Al here today?” If there is no auxiliary, the “do auxiliary” is added. Increasingly in informal oral English, the auxiliary is left out, e.g., “You home?” Other languages use phrases or particles, rather than inversion, to indicate that a preceding or following utterance is a yes/no question. Yes/no questions can also be formed syntactically in the same way that declarative statements are formed, using upward instead of downward intonation, e.g., “You’re home?” Quirk et al. (1985) call these declarative questions. Other types of questions are tag questions, which are a type of yes/no question, e.g., “They’re a lovely family now aren’t they?” and alternative questions, e.g., “Didju say widespread or white spread?”
Relationships Between Form, Function, And Response
According to conversation analysts, questions are first pair parts. This means that they initiate courses of action and make certain kinds of responses to these actions relevant and expectable. To some extent, the grammatical form of the question puts constraints on the form of answer that is relevant and expectable. Wh-questions make relevant answers that replace the question word; i.e., who questions elicit person references, where, place references. Yes/no questions make relevant yes or no answers. Alternative questions make relevant answers that choose one of the alternatives. However, participants can choose to design responses to questions in ways that do not conform to the grammatical form of the question. For example, when participants disagree with a presupposition embedded in a yes/no question, and providing either a yes or no answer would imply agreement with this presupposition, participants can choose to give a non-type-conforming answer that displays that the question is in some way problematic (Raymond 2003).
Questions are not only used to ask for new information. They are used to initiate repair on someone else’s prior talk, e.g., “Huh?” or “Met whom?” and they also perform a variety of social actions such as invitations (“Wanna come down and have a bite of lunch with me?”), offers (“Would you like a cup of coffee?”), complaints (“Why is it that we have to go there?”), and requests (“Can I have your light?”). At the beginning of a phone conversation, a question such as “Is Judy there?” is also a request, i.e., to speak to Judy. When questions are used to perform actions such as invitations, offers, and requests, recipients often respond by first answering the question, and then dealing with the action performed by the question (Schegloff forthcoming). For example, in response to the phone request, “Is Judy there?” the response “Yeah, just a second.” first answers the question: “Yeah,” and then responds to the request, indicating that it is being complied with: “just a second.”
Like other kinds of initiating actions and their responses, the ways that particular questions are used in particular contexts to perform particular actions are often culture specific. The English telephone request “Is Judy there?” may be heard as an information seeking question in other cultures. And in some cultures, it is perfectly acceptable on a first encounter to ask adults questions such as “How old are you?” or “How much money do you make at your job?” In North America, it is not.
There are two different types of responses to the actions that questions initiate. With some exceptions, those that forward the action initiated by the question and, in the process, promote social solidarity are called preferred responses, and those that block the action initiated by the question are dispreferred responses (Schegloff forthcoming). For example, accepting an invitation is preferred and rejecting it is dispreferred. However, not all responses that forward the action initiated by the question are preferred. Exceptions include self-deprecations, e.g. “I look fat in this dress, don’t I?” and some offers, e.g., “Would you like the last piece of cake?” Of course, people can and do give dispreferred responses, but they generally do these in ways that mark them as dispreferred, e.g., by delaying them with silence and discourse markers such as “well,” mitigating them, and providing accounts. These response preferences are not personal, psychological preferences, but structural and social preferences. Even if someone invites a person they dislike to a party, and that person does not want to come, their refusal is still a dispreferred response. In fact, they may even end up coming if they can’t think of an acceptable account for refusing.
Aside from this action preference, the design of the question itself can convey a preference for a certain type of answer. Linguistics uses the term conducive to describe this preference (Quirk et al. 1985). For example, the questions “Didn’t he arrive yet?” and “Do you really want to leave now?” seem to expect negative answers because of the negative polarity item “yet” and the intensifier “really.” The questions “Did someone call?” and “Hasn’t the boat left already?” seem to expect affirmative answers because of the positive polarity items “someone” and “already.” These questions are conducive because they display the questioner’s epistemic stance (Koshik 2005). Because of the preference for agreement, the answers prefer agreement with this stance.
Some questions, commonly known as rhetorical questions, are so strongly conducive that they are not heard as questions but as making a claim, or assertion, of the opposite polarity to that of the question. Because of this polarity reversal, Koshik (2005) calls these questions “reversed polarity questions.” They are often used as accusations, challenges, or complaints, e.g., “when have I.” (i.e., I never have), said in response to a friend’s accusation that Shelley was blowing off her girlfriends for guys, and “oh who cares!” (i.e., no one [except you] cares), said by a teenage boy in response to his parents’ attempts to correct his grammar.
Questions In Institutional Talk
Questions play an important role in institutional talk. According to Drew and Heritage (1992), question–answer sequences are the dominant form of interaction in many types of institutional talk, e.g. counseling interviews, medical interactions, broadcast news interviews, survey interviews, employment interviews, emergency calls, courtroom interactions, and pedagogical interactions. Questions are used to enact institutional roles, with the professional often leading the lay person through a series of question-initiated sequences, creating interactional asymmetry.
Questions reflect institutional norms, are central to accomplishing institutional goals, and are designed in special ways to meet these goals. Broadcast news interviewers design questions to strike a balance between the “journalistic norms of impartiality and adversarialness” (Clayman & Heritage 2002). For example, interviewers use reversed polarity questions to challenge interviewees, without directly giving their opinions, e.g., “Doesn’t that suggest that your party is still immature/irresponsible/undisciplined/ unserious?” Teachers in one-on-one writing conferences use similar questions as hints to enable students to perform error correction successfully (Koshik 2005). For example, after a student explains how a portion of his text is relevant to his thesis, the teacher says, “Good. Did you tell me that?” conveying, “You didn’t write in your essay what you just told me orally, but you should have.” Attorneys in the courtroom can design yes/no questions to challenge the truth or adequacy of a witness’s evidence. These questions often contain presuppositions which support their views. Lawyers can then require witnesses to answer with type-conforming questions, asking that answers beyond simple “yes” and “no” be stricken from the record (Atkinson & Drew 1979). In contrast, survey interview questions are designed to avoid presuppositions (Raymond 2003). Doctors use questions to elicit the patient’s history in medical examinations, and to maintain control over what is talked about (Drew & Heritage 1992).
Many of the questions asked by the professional in institutional talk are known information questions, i.e., questions to which the questioner knows the answer. Lawyers and broadcast news interviewers are expected to know answers to the questions they ask of witnesses and interviewees; they are asking these questions for an overhearing audience (Drew & Heritage 1992). Known-information questions are so common in North American and British pedagogy that they are identified with doing teaching, even when done outside institutional settings, e.g. when parents help children with homework. They engender a special three-part sequence, which Mehan (1979) calls “initiation, response, evaluation.” In the third turn after the student’s correct answer, the teacher typically evaluates the answer as correct, e.g., “good!” This evaluation does not treat the answer as new information. It would be odd for a teacher, or even a lawyer or news interviewer, to follow an answer to a known-information question with an information receipt such as “oh,” displaying that the answer was news to them (Drew & Heritage 1992).
- Atkinson, J. M., & Drew, P. (1979). Order in court: The organization of verbal interaction in juridical settings. London: Macmillan.
- Clayman, S. E., & Heritage, J. (2002). Questioning presidents: Journalistic deference and adversarialness in the press conferences of U.S. presidents Eisenhower and Reagan. Journal of Communication, 2, 749–775.
- Drew, P., & Heritage, J. (1992). Analyzing talk at work: An introduction. In P. Drew & J. Heritage (eds.), Talk at work. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 3–65.
- Koshik, I. (2005). Beyond rhetorical questions: Assertive questions in everyday interaction. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
- Mehan, H. (1979). Learning lessons: Social organization in the classroom. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Quirk, R., Greenbaum, S., Leech, G., & Svartvik, J. (1985). A comprehensive grammar of the English language. New York: Longman.
- Raymond, G. (2003). Grammar and social organization: Yes/no interrogatives and the structure of responding. American Sociological Review, 68, 939–967.
- Schegloff, E. A. (1984). On some questions and ambiguities in conversation. In J. M. Atkinson & J. Heritage (eds.), Structures of social action. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 28– 52.
- Schegloff, E. A. (forthcoming). A primer of conversation analysis: Sequence organization. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Weber, E. G. (1993). Varieties of questions in English conversation, vol. III. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.