Why do you ask?

The One Big Happy strip that came up in my comics feed on 12/7/18 — the Ramona St. posting mill grinds slowly, very slowly — is all about pragmatics, in particular what we take to be the point of questions we’re asked. In the strip, Ruthie asks her father what you can do to stop hiccups. Her father doesn’t inquire into why she’s asking, but assumes that she’s not merely asking an information question (she might, after all, be researching the matter for a presentation at school), and it never occurs to him that she’s asking a quiz question (to which she already knows the answer, but is checking his paternal competence at everyday medical care, should the occasion arise). Instead, he assumes that she has a personal interest in the answer to the question — this turns out to be so — indeed, that she has the hiccups and wants to know how to stop them — that’s a good guess, and it’s close, but it’s wrong — so instead of answering Ruthie’s question, by describing an appropriate remedy, he leaps to supplying the remedy himself:

(#1) A well-intentioned action misfire that follows from the various (literal) meanings of questions; practical reasoning about which ones are likely to be relevant to the situation at hand; the calculation of meanings that can be indirectly conveyed given a literal meaning — most pressingly the calculation of Ruthie’s intentions in asking this particular question, so that her father can respond to those intentions; and then his short-circuiting his reaction to all of this by dispensing with a verbal reply and going right to the action it would recommend

Why is she asking? That’s the crucial point, where it would be easy to go wrong.

A much transformed story from real life. A friend phoned me to ask, “What’s the difference between a garter snake and a rattlesnake?” A question I was well-prepared to answer, having spent a considerable part of my childhood on farms and on suburban streets right next to fields and forests, with substantial experience with garter snakes (memorably, in half-light on the way to the outhouse on one of the farms) and with rattlesnakes (in fetching firewood from wood-piles in the suburbs, also encountered sunning themselves on rocks at the edges of woods). The problem is that garter snakes have stripes, but some rattlesnakes have stripes too.

I held back on practical tips for telling them apart, to inquire, “Why are you asking?” In particular, was my caller confronted at close quarters by a snake of unknown species? Was this a herpetological emergency?

Well, no. They had recently seen photos of some garter snakes (there are several species, but the stripes are their garterish characteristic) and thought they looked a lot like rattlesnakes (there are several species of rattlesnake, some of them striped), and wasn’t that a problem?

Generally not, garter snakes being slender and rattlesnakes much heftier, and rattlesnakes having significant patterns other than stripes. You just don’t want to come on a rattlesnake unawares; those wood-piles take some caution.

More problematic questions. From the same time-period as #1, this web meme passed on to me by Tyler Schnoebelen:

(#2) From 1/11/19

The reduced alternative question Coffee or tea?  In the context of a flight attendant serving hot beverages to a passenger, normally understood as a question about the addressee’s preferences (‘Do you want coffee or do you want tea?’), and therefore as an indirect way of offering these alternatives to the addressee (‘Should I serve you coffee or should I serve you tea?’).

But it could also be as a question about the identity of the drink being served (“Is this coffee or is this tea?’) — understood either as an information question (the speaker doesn’t know which it is, and is asking for the addressee’s judgment on the matter); or as a quiz question (the speaker knows which it is, and is testing the addressee’s knowledge on this point), both of which are bizarre in the airplane context.

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