Reduced questions

A recent One Big Happy in my comics feed:

The woman with the little yappy dog offers Ruthie a casual-speech reduced question, here just a NP a good protector, plus an assent particle. Unfortunately, the reduction introduces a multiplicity of interpretations that would otherwise not be present: the unreduced form could be Is he a good protector? (the woman’s intention) or Are you a good protector? (what Ruthie understands, given her knowledge of the dog and his proclivities) or various other possibilities, like Do you want a good protector?.

Another competition between Brevity and Clarity. A NP reduced question serves ease of production, but it also literally provides less information than a full question, so divining a speaker’s intentions requires the hearer to use knowledge about the world and the context in which the question is uttered (what, in particular, is the relationship between speaker and hearer?).

Compare

(1) Mice in your cupboards?

(2) Sugar in your coffee?

With no further information, we’ll probably supply what we believe to be the most likely context for these questions: since mice in your cupboards is generally viewed as undesirable, the speaker of (1) is probably asking if you’re afflicted with mice, if you have mice in your cupboards, so if you know that they’re a pest extermination firm, they’re probably asking this so that they can offer to take you on as a customer; but since sugar in coffee is one of those personal-taste things, unless you know more, the speaker of (2) is probably asking if you want sugar in your coffee, and that’s almost surely the case if they’re hosting you or if they’re serving you in a cafe.

 

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