Lindsay McMahon
"The English Adventurer"
Michelle Kaplan
"The New York Radio Girl"

Have you ever noticed that some questions don’t seem like questions?

Does it feel as though sometimes people are asking a question in English but they already know the answer?

This is a common trend and something that may actually come up in conversation quite a bit.

We’re going to look at questions that are asked in a different way, and when this may be a good thing to try out in your conversations.

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Today we have a question about questions, which is an interesting thing to think about and consider.

Hi Lindsay and Michelle,

I listen to your podcast every day since I started biking to work due to the pandemic. You both make the podcast so clever and fun, and you have really helped me to improve my listening and learning. I have a question that I am hoping you can help to answer today.

My question is about how to ask questions. We learn to say things like “do you know?” or “were you playing?” But then I heard in a series something like “you know…?” I have also heard something that sounds like a statement come across in a question like way, such as “You were playing?” I am just a bit confused by this and I feel unsure of how to ask questions in this way.

Could you please explain this idea to me? Would I sound weird and unnatural using the question structure that we learned in a textbook? Any help that you could provide would be really appreciated as this is a common area that I want to be sure I understand.

Thank you for your help,

Malvina from Italy

When A Question Doesn’t Feel Like A Question

This is a great question because sometimes the way in which you ask a question can be quite confusing.

You may very well hear something that sounds like a statement in question form for example, and that can really add to the confusion.

Typically we say “do you know…” like “do you know where the store is?”

Looking at the other example, you might use “were you playing” with something like “Were you playing cards last night?”

That’s one way to ask a question, and that may feel very familiar to you.

Notice in these examples that this is about yes/no questions.

So in the example Malvina is asking about when people cut off the auxiliary, and though you may not be able to identify this as such you know when something sounds unusual to you.

She’s referencing a question that is framed differently, though it’s trying to get similar information.

Comparing to the examples you may instead ask something like “you know where the store is?” or “you were playing cards last night?”

You can see in those examples that you cut off the first word in the questions.

You are asking for the same type of information, but you are getting rid of the first word in each example—and this is more common than you might think.

Why Do We Do This In The First Place?

So what is the advantage of dropping that part of the question?

Why would we do this in conversation anyhow?

There are a couple of reasons as to why you might do this in conversation.

You might find that this is a helpful and very native way of talking in conversation, so let’s see why this might happen and how it can work.

  • It’s a little less formal: It takes the formality out of conversation, which is great for talking to friends. Though you might not do this in conversation in a professional setting, you certainly could for a personal one. This is a great way to talk to friends, and it’s fun to try out sometimes.
  • It may show that you already think you know the answer: This conveys a sort of familiarity and helps to put the person at ease. You are saying through your usage that this is something that you already know about the person, and therefore it’s a helpful way to show your relationship.

Let’s look at an example that can help to convey this.

Michelle: “Hi Lindsay! You coming to the party tonight?”

Lindsay: “Yes! You’re taking off for it?”

Michelle: “Yeah!”

What did those do in this example?

We could have said “are you” for both of the questions and it would have worked just fine.

How did this change the tone though?

  • It shows we are close and it’s more informal: Again it reiterates that close relationship and helps to demonstrate that you feel close to the person. It shows that sort of familiarity in a great way.
  • It also shows we kind of know a bit about each other and can make some assumptions based on what we already know: This can work to your favor and put the person you are talking to at ease. It gives off a certain tone and really helps to demonstrate that you know this person well and that you have a feel for what they may think.

When It Works and When It Doesn’t

So you saw in the example above how this can work, and why you might use this in conversation.

There are times when you might use this and it fits perfectly in the conversation—but then there are times when it won’t work as well.

Here’s another example of how this can work and why you might take this away in your conversation.

Lindsay: “You heard about what happened to Jenny?” (could also add right at the end)

Michelle: “No! What? Something to do with her dog?”

Lindsay: “Yeah. they both fell on a walk. They are ok though.”

Michelle: “Oh good.”

The change here was–did you hear about what happened to Jenny?

Is it something to do with her dog?

This shows how it can work well, and it’s almost as if not as many words are actually needed.

There are however times when to avoid doing this and when it won’t work as well.

  • Formal situations, maybe like a job interview: You want to be professional and formal, and this is not the time to cut words out or use familiarity. Look at this example to see how it absolutely does not work here. Lindsay: “How long were you at your last job?” Michelle: “5 years. You want someone with ten years experience?”
  • It just sounds awkward: As with the example above in a job interview, there are times when doing this just sounds awkward. You can feel that it’s just not right and therefore you want to avoid this because it can make you sound odd and it can even make the other person feel uneasy. If in doubt then don’t use it just to be safe!

Now, we can also switch in and out, and there are times when you can go back and forth and be completely effective with both.

Here is a larger role play to demonstrate this and how going back and forth can work really well.

Lindsay and Michelle are looking at pictures of dogs online because we are going to get a new rescue dog.

Lindsay: “Do you like this dog?”

Michelle: “Yeah, super cute!”

Lindsay: “You think it’s even still available?”

Michelle: “Hmm. oh yes it is, there’s a green label underneath – you think this is the one?”

Lindsay: “Maybe!”

Michelle: “Are you sure he’s not too young? He’s a puppy- 2 months old!”

Lindsay: “Wow, yeah, a baby. Think we can handle it?” **** here we even cut off the you

Michelle: “It will be tough. You’re in touch with our contact person?”

Lindsay: “Yeah, we have Sheila. She’s our point person. I can talk to her.”

Michelle: “Great!”

Go through this again and look at why we switched it when we did.

Sometimes there isn’t a really good reason, but you just might go with what feels right.

Keep in mind that it’s important to remember your relationship.

Consider if you know a little bit and can assume something already.

Listen in on conversations to hear when people do this, and then ask yourself why.

You will know when the relationship and situation makes this a good thing to use or not, and then you can plan accordingly and practice when it works best.

Takeaway

As you can see there are times when this may work and when it is not a good idea.

Always consider the relationship and the situation that you are in to decide if it works well in that particular conversation.

Give this a try in your own conversations when the situation allows for it.

Listen for examples with others, as well as on TV or in movies, as this can give you a good indication.

This is a great part of conversation when used properly, so just listen and learn when it is appropriate to use it in yours.

If you have any questions, please place them below in the comments section.

We’ll get back to you as soon as we can.

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