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Keith Tse


  • Writer's pictureKeith Tse

English question-formation

Despite the title of this blog, this is not a grammar blog, though it does hinge on a linguistic phenomenon. It is more of a childhood reminiscence (yes, once again), as it deals with a particular episode that happened when I first arrived in England. When I first came to this country, I did not speak much English (still don’t, though I dare say that my English is much better now than before), and, as my old schoolmates and teachers can firmly attest, my English (both written and spoken) was riddled with grammatical errors. As a linguist, it is interesting for me now reflecting upon some of these learner’s mistakes that I made, since they reveal the structure of my brain (!). Rather than going under the knife, I much prefer to analyse it externally and see how this little organ of mine actually works. Anyway, a very common mistake in my speech then was that I did not distinguish between direct questions and indirect questions. As is well-known, English uses subject-auxiliary inversion for question-formation e.g. Stan / is in the following example:

1a) Stan is there.

1b) Where is Stan?

1c) *Where Stan is?

In indirect questions, however, (standard) English famously prohibits this inversion, which is one of the main pieces of evidence for arguing that the English left-periphery for interrogatives is the same as the complementiser layer which is selected in indirect statements (e.g. that, if, whether) (see e.g. Radford (1997)). For example:

2a) Where is Dan?

2b) *I do not know where is Dan.

2c) I do not know where Dan is.

I remember being corrected several times by my schoolmates for saying things like 2b) and they all insisted to me that the verb (here is) must stay in-situ (2c)) rather than come before the subject (here Stan), as in direct questions (2a)). Funny recollection this one. Although I am now researching on linguistics, I have never claimed to be grammatically perfect or infallible in any of the languages I use. In fact, as a foreign language learner, I too had to go through the hoops and learn languages the hard way (verb tables, declensions/conjugations, vocab list etc etc etc). If anything, I am only too familiar with grammar mistakes (both mine and others) since as a linguist I am constantly on the lookout for them. As mentioned before many times, this is how we learn, namely by being pinned back by setbacks, and through every mistake and mishap we experience we learn to bounce back and come back stronger/better. Don’t give up.

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