Asking questions and giving commands

The text for the day is a dialogue posted on Facebook on the 19th by John Beavers (a guitarist who moonlights as a linguistics professor at the University of Texas, Austin), between John’s son Ezra and John’s wife / Ezra’s mother Janice Ta:

Ezra on his 3rd birthday (July 28th)

Ezra: Mommy, do “boy” and “toy” rhyme?

Janice: Yes, they do! You’re very good at rhyming. Do “boy” and “man” rhyme?

Ezra: No. You’re not very good at rhyming.

Ah, a significant ambiguity in the use of interrogative sentences: between information-seeking interrogatives (infoseek questions, I’ll call them), like Ezra’s do “boy” and “toy” rhyme?; and examination interrogatives (test questions, I’ll call them; they’re also known as quiz questions), like Janice’s do “boy” and “man” rhyme?

(These aren’t the only uses of interrogative sentences. There are plenty more, including several types of “rhetorical questions”: (positive assertion) Am I angry? (You bet I am!); (negative assertion) Can you have ice cream for breakfast? (Hell, no!); (assent) Is the Pope Catholic? (= Yes.))

Infoseek questions are the pragmatically prototypical interrogatives, acquired first and statistically dominant in conversation and texts. In its simplest variant, the speaker lacks some piece of information I (or is unsure about it), wants to acquire I, believes the addressee might be able to supply I, and is requesting the addressee to do so. Infoseek questions are a basic tool in coping with ignorance about things in the world; we are all ignorant of a great many things, small children especially so — so once they have the linguistic resources, they ask an enormous number of infoseek questions.

In test questions, the speaker has the relevant knowledge about I and is asking the addressee to perform by displaying the extent of their knowledge. This performance might be intended as part of a learning routine (the assumption being that the addressee should have I and so needs practice and correction), as an evaluation exercise (about the addressee’s knowledge), as part of a competition, whatever.

Infoseek questions can be directed at a wide range of addressees, but test questions are heavily loaded socioculturally: only certain speakers can direct them at only certain addressees, and only in certain contexts. One of the burdens of being a child in our culture is that all sorts of adults subject you to barrages of test questions, to which you are expected to respond cooperatively. (Similarly for people in an assortment of interview circumstances — for jobs, for school admission, to receive awards, in medical evaluations, etc. — where infoseek questions and test questions are likely to be mixed together.) Ezra has (apparently) not yet twigged to this fact: he asks infoseek questions and expects that others are doing the same. So if his mother asks if boy and man rhyme, that must be because she doesn’t know whether they do, which means that there’s a lot about rhyming that she doesn’t know.

Well, … Ezra has been going to day care, and is now in pre-school, so he’s probably been exposed to some test questions already and will now experience a weary ton of them. Maybe he just wasn’t prepared for his mother to slip into this teacher-schoolchild routine. Or he’s a wise and cheeky kid who’s messing with his mother, deliberately undermining the routine. Is that a trusting smile? Or a sly one? (Already at this age my grand-daughter was capable of pointed subversion of such schoolroom routines.)

Note 1. Test questions can range over the full range of interrogative forms. In particular, they can be yes-no questions (like the examples so far), or alternative questions (Was Barack Obama born in Kenya or the United States?), or constituent questions (What is the capital of Nevada? Who was Winston Churchill? When did World War II come to an end? Why is the sky blue?) Learning to cope with test questions involves a great deal of (quite culture-specific) learning about what, precisely, the questions are asking about and what, precisely, would count as an answer.

To appreciate this last point, note that the following is not an acceptable answer to What is the capital of Nevada?:

The capital of Nevada is the seat of government and the administrative center of the state of Nevada.

Nor would this count as an acceptable answer to Who was Winston Churchill?:

Winston Churchill, known as the Cavalier Colonel, was an English soldier, nobleman, historian, and politician who lived from 1620 to 1688.

(A little more on this point below.)

Note 2. There’s a division of imperative sentences that’s parallel to infoseek vs. test questions — in particular, there’s a class of test imperatives, directives to an addressee to perform various acts as a demonstration of the addressee’s knowledge or abilities. Some of the tasks are verbal (List the first eight numbers in the Fibonacci sequence), some not (Do 50 pushups; Draw a penguin), and some both (Take nine heel-to-toe steps along this straight line, keeping your arms to your side and counting each step out loud).

An example, from a version of the U.S. Foreign Service exam (the Foreign Service Officer Test) administered to candidates for the U.S. diplomatic service. This particular task was given to a friend of mine many years ago: List all the countries along the Rhine River, in order, from its source to its outlet in the sea.

Note that verbal test imperatives can be alternatively framed as test questions: What are the first eight numbers in the Fibonacci sequence? etc.

[Digression. From Wikipedia, with the Rhine River information and some indication of why it might be a good task to set for a prospective Foreign Service officer:

The Rhine … is a European river that begins in the Swiss canton of Graubünden in the southeastern Swiss Alps, forms part of the Swiss-Liechtenstein, Swiss-Austrian, Swiss-German and then the Franco-German border, then flows through the German Rhineland and the Netherlands and eventually empties into the North Sea.

… The Rhine and the Danube formed most of the northern inland frontier of the Roman Empire and, since those days, the Rhine has been a vital and navigable waterway carrying trade and goods deep inland. Its importance as a waterway in the Holy Roman Empire is supported by the many castles and fortifications built along it. In the modern era, it has become a symbol of German nationalism.]

Final note on test questions and imperatives, from my 2/27/11 posting “Dubious diagnostics”:

(In an earlier discussion of test questions — “What is this question about?”, on Language Log, here — I started with the question “What color is a banana?” (addressed to a young child) and moved on to “What is the opposite of ___?” and “Which one of these things is not like the others?” and, in comments, “What is the next number in the series ___, ___, ___?” Answering such questions “correctly” involves mustering all sorts of cultural knowledge and also experience with the contexts in which people ask them such questions and the kinds of answers that are expected.)

Notice that the subjects of the similarities test are described as “patients”, so they’re probably used to being asked unaccountable, but somehow important, questions by professionals of various sorts. Still, the experience is rather weird and unnatural, and can be baffling. My man Jacques, during his many years of descent into neurological hell, was generally cooperative, but sometimes bridled at (say) being asked what month it was (“Why do you want to know?”) or being asked to count backwards from 100 by 7s (“Why should I?”), and often performed very badly (well short of his actual abilities) when put on the spot and obliged to reflect on what he was doing.


2 Responses to “Asking questions and giving commands”

  1. arnold zwicky Says:

    From John Beavers on Facebook:

    Love it! Ezra’s tone of voice didn’t suggest he was pulling Mommy’s leg, but he does relish pointing out when people are wrong. A fun linguistically interesting side fact: one of the reasons Janice asked that question was because before Ezra had mastered rhyming he sometimes presented us with non-rhyming words that had related meanings (e.g. like “boy” and “man”) and asked us if they rhymed. He may have thought that rhyming was a more general notion of relatedness.

  2. What question are you asking? | Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] on this blog: infoseek vs. test questions. In my 8/22/16 posting “Asking questions and giving commands”, which begins with an exchange between Ezra […]

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