A few posts ago I talked about the song Sweet Caroline. The morning after I posted that, one of my sisters, who is one of my regular reader messaged me “I read your blog this morning and the first song on the radio when I got in the car to drive to church was … Sweet Caroline. Freaky eh!”

The freakiest coincidence of music I experienced was in a bookshop while browsing through a book which attempts to answer rhetorical questions in songs, for example “How deep is the ocean, how high is the sky?”. One chapter was on “Do you know the way to San Jose?”, the answer to which depends on which San Jose you are headed to; the way to San José, Costa Rica is very different from the way to San Jose, California (which is undoubtedly the one Hal David had in mind). Right then, I heard on the bookshop’s sound system:

doof … doof … doof … doof …  
woah … woah … woah.woah … woah … woah…woah.woah … woah … woah

The simplest answer to the question “Do you know the way to San Jose?” is “Yes” (or “No”), but communicative cooperation means we can’t actually say that.


How not to ask a question

Yesterday my wife and I visited friends. She and they were talking in Korean when she suddenly turned to me and asked “Have you put on or lost weight?” It’s a perfectly formed question, but I didn’t like the implication, especially as I have, in fact, lost one or two kilograms recently.

PS Last month I had to complete a comprehensive medical survey, and one question was ‘Has your weight altered substantially in the last 12 months?’

Questions, questions!

Several months ago, while waiting for my morning coffee, I heard a woman nearby say on her phone 

Are you still in bed, are you?

It’s certainly clear, but it’s not a standard question structure. We can easily have

You’re still where
You’re still in bed?
Are you still in bed?
You’re still in bed, aren’t you?
You’re not/You aren’t still in bed, are you?

and possibly

You’re still in bed, are you?

but not 

You’re not/You aren’t still in bed, aren’t you?

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Permanent resident

A few days ago, an official form asked me if I was a permanent resident (of Australia). I pondered for a while then answered ‘yes’. But I’m not. A citizen is not a permanent resident. One website of the government department responsible for visa says “You can become a permanent resident of Australia by applying for and being granted a permanent visa that allows you to remain in Australia indefinitely.” That’s obviously not me.

Most official forms ask either:

Are you:
an Australian citizen [  ]
an Australian permanent resident [  ]
an eligible New Zealand citizen [  ]
none of the above [  ]

(to which I tick ‘Australian citizen’)


Are you an Australian citizen, Australian permanent resident or eligible New Zealand citizen [Yes / No]

(to which I tick ‘Yes’).

I think I know what they are asking, but my legal editing colleagues agreed that it was a strangely worded question. My citizenship does not rely on me living in Australia permanently, or at all, but a ‘permanent’ resident can actually lose their visa by living outside Australia for too long.

Relevantly, the question was part of an application for a bank loan. The bank’s major concern is that I can pay back the loan in the required time, which obviously relies on some continuity of employment. I wonder if people who are applying for a smaller, personal loan are asked that question.

Romeo loves Juliet?

English has a number of ways to ask questions, with some smaller or bigger differences in effect.

We can ask:

Romeo loves Juliet?

by adding an upwards inflection at the end. This probably indicates that I haven’t heard you properly, or surprise on my part.

We can emphasise one, two or even all of the words:

Romeo loves Juliet? Who did you say? Did you say Romeo? or I thought Tybalt loved Juliet. 
Romeo loves Juliet? What did you say? Did you say he loves her? or I thought he hated her. 
Romeo loves Juliet? Who did you say? Did you say Juliet? or I thought he loved Rosaline.  

Romeo loves Juliet? Let me get this right – we’re talking about Romeo, and you’re saying he loves her.
Romeo loves Juliet? etc
Romeo loves Juliet?

Romeo loves Juliet? probably Punctuated! For! Emphasis!: RomeolovesJuliet? (I can’t even …)  

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"Why did you go to bed last night?"

This year I have been teaching English on Saturdays as well as doing a weekday job not related to English teaching. Due to the coronavirus outbreak, the college managers decided that teaching will be done online, but gave us very little time to prepare. I downloaded a conferencing tool and got as far as setting up sessions and inviting students. Today six students joined, four of them for most of the time. Among other things, I reviewed questions with who, what, where, when, how and why (and later whose, which, how much, how many, how many times, how often and how long). One student wrote:

Why did you go to bed last night?

She very quickly changed it to:

Why did you go to bed late last night?

As with many things in English, the ‘wrong’ question is actually more interesting than the ‘right’ one. “Why did you go to bed last night?” is perfectly grammatical and makes sense, but no-one ever asks it because there are basically only two overlapping reasons why any human goes to bed: they are tired (or sick) and/or they have to get up earlier rather than later the next morning. (We might also add boredom, habit or social convention.) 

On the other hand, “Why did you go to bed late last night?” needs a context where the asker knows that the askee did, in fact, go to bed late: either the askee says “I went to bed at (some late time)” or the asker first asks “What time did you go to bed last night?” and got “(Some late time)” as an answer. Asking “Why did you go to bed late last night?” out of such a context is likely to just confuse the askee.

How is YouTube today?

YouTube is asking me the question above with the five possible answers: Absolutely outstanding, Extremely good, Very good, Good, Not good.

What is the difference between the first four choices, really? Either I can access the site, find the video I want and play it, and there is an appropriate selection of related videos down the side of the screen; or I can’t or there isn’t. If I can’t access the site, it might be because of my computer, browser, internet connection or some other circumstance not related to YouTube, and I can’t see the question and answers anyway.

I rarely answer questions like this online or on telephone calls to call centres. They are welcome to assume that they are doing an acceptable job until I tell them otherwise.

I do

Yesterday I went to the wedding of my equal-favourite niece and the man of her dreams. Inevitably, there was a linguistic point.

One of the clichés about wedding services is that they involves saying “I do” (see the movie Four Weddings and Funeral, for example) . At all of the wedding services I’ve ever been to (including yesterday’s) people have said  “I will”. The question is “[Name], will you have [Name] to be your husband/wife?”. Other Christian denominations may have different wordings, which might involve the question “Do you take [Name] to be your husband?”, to which the answer is “I do”. (We could also ask “Will you take …?” but not “Do you have …?”) 

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“Could you tell me why?”

One grammar activity required students to place the given jumbled words into the correct order. One of them involved an indirect question, approximately “Could you tell me where the station is?”. All the students wrote “Could you tell me where is the station?”. This fits the pattern for a direct question (“Where is the station?”) and is perfectly understandable, but no native speaker over the age of three ever uses that structure, or is ever explicitly taught the rule.

It sounds a bit wishy-washy to say “In this kind of sentence we use this order and not that order” without giving some sort of reason, especially when there’s such a strong pull towards that order (viz, the subject-auxiliary inversion of a direct question).

But grammar books and websites don’t give a reason. Even the monumental Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (which I have just bought, so I’m likely to quote more, in order to get my considerable amount of money’s worth, says only:

The main structural difference between subordinate and main clause interrogatives is that subject-auxiliary inversion does not generally apply in the subordinate construction.

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When the jester sang for the king and queen

One question sparked three very interesting points about language and language learning. 

A few weeks ago I bought two boxes of question and answer cards based on colourful cartoon-style pictures of ‘Wonders of the World’ and ‘Moments in History’. I found them in the children’s section of a standard bookshop, so I guess they’re for children growing up in English-speaking countries, but most of the questions are also suitable for English language learners. I’ve used them in some classes already, and they’ve generally worked well.

One picture showed a medieval banquet with a king and queen (or lord and lady) and several others sitting at a table eating and a person in brightly coloured clothes standing in front of them doing something. One of the questions was “What colour is the jester’s collar?”.

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