What question are you asking?

The 11/27 One Big Happy strip, which came up in my comics feed recently:

The father’s question, asking for a choice, appears to be an opinion-seeking question, of a sort that adults often exchange amongst one another to make pleasant small talk or as a kind of game. But note the father’s open laptop: the opinion-seeking question is being used here as a form of test question, in which the kids are supposed to display their knowledge of culturally significant people. And the kids are perfectly aware that the exercise is some kind of test.

There is, unfortunately, another variable here: the father’s question offers choices at two points: what person (that’s the question he’s intending to ask) and living or dead (which the father intends to be clarifying the range of persons that could be possible answers, but which the kids take to be the question at issue.

Yes, it’s preposterous. But the environment of test questions of all sorts is highly artificial, especially for older children, like Ruthie or Joe: who knows what sort of absurd questions, ostensibly asking for an opinion, might be thrown at you as a test?

So they opt for the living or dead question as the one at hand, and disagree about what the “right” answer should be.

Earlier 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 Beavers, age 3, and his mother, Janice Ta:

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.

Then there are opinion-seeking questions, which kids use (of course) amongst themselves much as adults do. But the landscape shifts seriously when opinion-seeking is wrenched into the test-question context, and Daddy is taking your answers down on his laptop..

One Response to “What question are you asking?”

  1. Knowing how that knowing that/what | Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] knowledge as evidenced in their language use continues in the 11/30 strip (previous episode: my 12/20/20 posting “What question are you […]

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