Many years ago, air hostesses archetypally asked passengers

“Tea or coffee?”

The possible answers were

“No, (thank you)”
“(Yes), tea(, please)”
“(Yes), coffee(, please)”

In the last case, the air hostess would then ask

“Tea? Or coffee?”

This can also be written as “Tea or coffee?” but is distinguished by a rising intonation on “tea”, followed by a small pause, then a falling intonation on “coffee”, compared to an overall upward intonation for the first “Tea or coffee?”.

English grammar distinguishes polar (or yes/no) questions and alternative questions. The answers to “Do you want a hot drink?” are “Yes(, I want a hot drink)(, please)” and “No(, I don’t want a hot drink)(, thank you)”. Offering tea and coffee as a choice doesn’t fundamentally change that. Strictly speaking, the only two answers are “yes” and “no”. Answering “yes” is not non-cooperative; answering “yes, tea” or “yes, coffee” is cooperative, but not required.

On the other hand, the answers to “Do you want tea? or coffee (?)” are “Tea(, please)” and “Coffee(, please). Answering “Yes(, please)” is decidedly non-cooperative, and may result in a cup of coftea. (There are more choices; I found a 50-page academic paper titled Responding to alternative and polar questions. And less academically:


I’ve been thinking about this for a few days after Geoffrey Pullum posted on Language Log about a report in Huffington Post UK about a media release from the UK Office of National Statistics stating that despite “a statistically significant increase” in the number of people identifying as lesbian, gay or bisexual, “the majority of the UK population still identifies as heterosexual or straight”.

“Heterosexual or straight”? That doesn’t match either of the question types above. “Heterosexual” and “straight” are not alternatives like “tea” and “coffee”, and as a polar question one of those terms is redundant. I emailed Geoff about this and he replied, in part, “I think they were just glossing ‘heterosexual’ for those unaccustomed to six-syllable words. As when you say things like ‘This is a common behaviour of Erinaceus europaeus or the European hedgehog’.”So, redundant but possibly helpful.

Another possibility is the way the ONS conducts its Annual Population Survey. Its website states, “Interviews … are carried out either on a face-to-face basis with the help of laptops … or on the telephone”. In other words, the survey is oral and not written. If they ask “open” questions, then some people will reply “heterosexual” and some “straight”, so the ONS must combine those two answers. On the other hand, some people will reply “homosexual”, some “gay” and some “lesbian”, according to personal usage. If, however, they ask “closed” questions, then how do they phrase those questions? In my grammar and worldview, “Are you heterosexual or straight?” is not a felicitous question, either as a polar question or an alternative one, and “Are you homosexual or gay?” and “Are you homosexual or lesbian?” are even worse.

The ONS also categorises “bisexual”, “other” and “refused/don’t know”. I would be astonished if anyone didn’t know their sexual orientation, unless they also don’t know what “sexual orientation” means. In any case, the oral nature of the survey must result in a number of people refusing to answer who might answer a written survey.

The ONS also refers to “lesbian, gay or bisexual” and “gay or lesbian [and] bisexual”, so some people might be “lesbian, gay or bisexual” but not “lesbian or gay”. It also says “Around 1.7% of males identified themselves as gay or lesbian … compared with 0.7% of females”. I would imagine that the number of males identifying themselves as lesbian is vanishingly small. (Though there is a joke to that effect. Search for “cowboy lesbian joke” if you dare.)

Anyway, the point of Geoff’s Language Log post was the ONS’s “British understatement of the week” in saying “the majority of the UK population still identifies as heterosexual or straight”. The figures are: “other” 0.5%, “gay, lesbian or bisexual” 2%, “refused/don’t know” 4.1% and “heterosexual or straight” 93.5%.

Yesterday morning, after I typed some preliminary notes for this post, I went upstairs and my wife asked, with reference to our niece, “She didn’t sleep or not?”. Even if I knew, I couldn’t possibly answer “yes” or “no”, so I (truthfully) responded “I don’t know”. Which leads to a whole nother point about answering negatively-phrased questions, which I won’t go into.

In The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language and A Student’s Introduction to English Grammar Huddlestone and Pullum treat this under ‘questions’ and not under ‘coordination’ (what most traditional grammars call ‘conjunctions’), but some of the same issues arise to a lesser extent in statements: “I drink tea and coffee” (in general) v “I drink tea or coffee” (on any particular morning, but might drink tea and coffee on some mornings).


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s