When is a Sentence a Question?

Dr. Mounce wrote (also HERE) on how to determine whether a sentence is a question today, but he missed probably the most important and most obvious way of determining the illocutionary force of a sentence:

If the sentence in question begins with a question word, it’s a question.

I promise.

Here are some good question words to look for:

τίς

ποῦ

πῶς

ποῖος

πόσος

There are others, of course, but these ones are pretty common. They’re also the one that I was able to think of without going to a dictionary. If your sentence begins with one of these, it’s a safe bet it’s a question.

11 thoughts on “When is a Sentence a Question?

    1. Believe it or not, James, my first year Greek grammar course barely touched the issue. We were taught that τίς was interrogative and that τις was indefinite, but the fact that τίς is virtually always at the beginning of the clause was never mentioned.

      Btw, I like your picture.

  1. I can only hope that both Mounce and his questioners had assumed an “apart from beginning with a question word” condition; otherwise, the omission is remarkable.

    At any rate, I’d like to know if such sentences like Gal 3:3 are questions, where the usual clues are absent.

    1. “I can only hope that both Mounce and his questioners had assumed an “apart from beginning with a question word” condition; otherwise, the omission is remarkable.”

      I hope so too.

      I’ll maybe try to take a look at Gal 3:3 tomorrow and write a post on it.

  2. Other than the glaring omission of talking about question words, Mounce’s discussion of questions is pretty on target. I particularly like this statement:

    “At the end of the day, context is still king. Having a sensitivity to the flow of the discussion and what the author is saying is the ultimate clue as to whether or not a sentence is a question.”

    That is really the issue in Galatians 3:3. The linguistic structure of the clause at the beginning of that verse gives no clue, but the context of 3:2 makes is likely that the clause is intended as a question. 3:2 begins with τοῦτο μόνον θέλω μαθεῖν ἀφ’ ὑμῶν, . . . , which, despite its inclusion of τοῦτο μόνον, introduces a list of questions.

    Of course this does not mean that the clause in 3:3 has to be a question. It just means it’s likely to be. On the flip side, Paul has already called the Galatians ἀνόητοι in 3:1. He could be doing it again here, making an assertion rather than asking a question. I just don’t think that’s the most reasonable assumption.

    1. Agree, beyond the omission it is a good little discussion. The reason it had initially caught my attention was that all of his examples of deliberative subjunctives are introduced by τίς.

      Thanks for your perspective on Galatians 3:3, I’ll keep it in mind when I have a spare moment to look at it.

    2. Thanks Micheal, for your comments. I have no problem with Gal 3:2b being a question. Paul is asking to learn just one thing his the following statement includes a disjunction with both members of the disjunction in focal positions. It is set up so that the Galatians are to answer with one of the two alternatives (presumably, the “hearing of faith”).

      The status of Gal 3:3 on the other hand is much less clear to me. Too bad Greek doesn’t do verb-subject inversion like other languages.

      By the way, I started a thread on this on B-Greek (which led to some helpful discussion) at:

      http://lists.ibiblio.org/pipermail/b-greek/2010-August/054270.html

  3. When I read his blog entry I just assumed Mounce was talking about sentances that could be either a question or a statement.

  4. Greetings to all, I’ve been following this blog for some time now and now I’m de-lurking for a while to take part in the discussion.

    Obviously, in Ancient Greek (both Classical and Hellenistic) the most common way of posing a general – i.e. yes/no – question was changing the intonation of the utterance. It is one of the rare instances of direct interdependance of suprasegmental phonetics and syntax. This is also one of the few language features that probably survived as it originally was until Modern Greek. Today’s Greeks raise their voices significantly at the end of the sentece when putting a direct question. Unfortunately, there wasn’t a way to communicate this in writing by the time the first NT manuscripts saw the light of the day. Hence the confusion that arises in connection with some passages not only in NT but also in contemporary secular literature. The case of particular questions introduced by a strong marker referencing to the thing being put into question (who? when? how many?) is much clearer and perhaps this is why Mounce has ommitted to state it explicitly.

    1. Indeed, intonation and prosody were central for interrogatives of all types in Ancient Greek.

      And on the one hand, I would love to give Mounce and other grammarians the benefit of the doubt on this one in just the manner you say. I cannot imagine that he would not know that question words normally introduce content questions, but at the same time, I also know that when it comes to teaching and learning another language, assumptions about what is obvious (thus not needed to be said explicitly) are dangerous. With that said, I’m not blaming Mounce either (or any of the other grammarians). This is clearly a grammatical tradition that goes back at least two centuries (as I said, the earliest grammar I checked was from 1820) and thus Mounce is doing no more than what has been done.

      Btw, welcome to the conversation!

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