Question structure

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There are two main ways of forming questions in English. The first is the yes-no question; the second is the wh-question. The first of these expects the answer 'yes' or the answer 'no': "do you agree?" In other words, it is seeking either agreement (the answer 'yes') or denial (the answer 'no'). The other uses one of the wh-words. The description of their structures in AWE (as in most grammars) focuses on their difference from the unmarked indicative sentence.

  • Yes-no questions invert the Subject and verb. In present-day English, this usually requires the addition of an auxiliary verb. The auxiliary is placed before the Subject, and the lexical verb after it - although it is usual simply to invert the copula 'to be' with the Subject. Examples:
    • The statement "You[Subject] are[Verb (copula)] ill" is transformed into the question "Are[Verb (copula)] you[Subject] ill?"
This was more common in Early Modern English, as when Shakespeare writes "Say'st thou?" where current English would have "Do you say [so]?"
    • The statement "He[Subject] is[aux] going[lexical verb] out tonight" is transformed into "Is[aux] he[Subject] going[lexical verb] out tonight?" (Note that the verb phrase which remains united in the statement is split by the Subject in the question.)
    • "I[Subject] like[verb] chocolate" becomes "Do[aux] you[Subject] like[lexical verb] chocolate?"
    • "The money[Subject] has[aux] gone[lexical verb]" becomes "Has[aux] the money[Subject] gone[lexical verb]?"
  • Wh- questions are formed with wh-words

Non-native speakers often have difficulty, particularly in normal informal speech in forming questions correctly. They have been taught how to do so, but in the stress of the moment, they sometimes forget. I have often been asked, "How you say it?", which is not a structure that a native would use.

The rule that has been forgotten here is that for forming direct questions with question words. (These are sometimes called wh- words, which can be a confusing name in the case of how, which is a wh- word that does not start with wh-.) When we ask such a question, the usual form is: [wh-word + auxiliary verb + Subject + Verb (+ Complement(s)) (+ Adverbial(s))]. So the ill-formed question above, "How you say it?", should be "How do you say it?" (or "How should I say it?", or several other ways of asking this question).

Questions with question, or wh- , words are open-ended questions. The answers can be very different. A second form of question expects only two answers: the yes/no question. The direct question form of this is formed with the basic structure [auxiliary verb + Subject + Verb (+ Complement(s)) (+ Adverbial(s) )], for example "Are you going out tonight?"

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