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A question is a linguistic expression used to make a request for information, or the request made using such an expression. The information requested is provided in the form of an answer.
Questions have developed a range of uses that go beyond the simple eliciting of information from another party. Rhetorical questions, for example, are used to make a point, and are not expected to be answered. Many languages have special grammatical forms for questions (for example, in the English sentence “Are you happy?”, the inversion of the subject you and the verb are shows it to be a question rather than a statement). However, questions can also be asked without using these interrogative grammatical structures – for example one may use an imperative, as in “Tell me your name”.
The principal use of questions is to elicit information from the person being addressed by indicating the information which the speaker (or writer) desires. However, questions can also be used for a number of other purposes. Questions may be asked for the purpose of testing someone’s knowledge, as in a quiz or examination. Raising a question may guide the questioner along an avenue of research (see Socratic method).
A research question is an interrogative statement that manifests the objective or line of scholarly or scientific inquiry designed to address a specific gap in knowledge. Research questions are expressed in a language that is appropriate for the academic community that has the greatest interest in answers that would address said gap. These interrogative statements serve as launching points for the academic pursuit of new knowledge by directing and delimiting an investigation of a topic, a set of studies, or an entire program of research.
A rhetorical question is asked to make a point, and does not expect an answer (often the answer is implied or obvious). Some questions are used principally as polite requests, as with “Would you pass the salt?”
Pre-suppositional or loaded questions, such as “Have you stopped beating your wife?” may be used as a joke or to embarrass an audience, because any answer a person could give would imply more information than he was willing to affirm.
Questions can also be used as titles of works of literature, art and scholarship. Examples include Leo Tolstoy’s short story How Much Land Does a Man Need?, the painting And When Did You Last See Your Father?, the movie What About Bob?, and the academic work Who Asked the First Question?
Questions that ask whether or not some statement is true are called yes–no questions (or polar questions, or general questions), since they can in principle be answered by a “yes” or “no” (or similar words or expressions in other languages). Examples include “Do you take sugar?”, “Should they be believed?” and “Am I the loneliest person in the world?”
A type of question that is similar in form to a yes–no question, but is not intended to be answered with a “yes” or “no”, is the alternative question (or choice question). This presents two or more alternative answers, as in “Do you want fish or lamb?”, or “Are you supporting England, Ireland or Wales?” The expected response is one of the alternatives, or some other indication such as “both” or “neither” (questionnaire forms sometimes contain an option “none of the above” or similar for such questions). Because of their similarity in form to yes–no questions, they may sometimes be answered “yes” or “no”, possibly humorously or as a result of misunderstanding.
The other main type of question (other than yes–no questions) is those called wh-questions (or non-polar questions, or special questions). These use interrogative words (wh-words) such as when, which, who, how, etc. to specify the information that is desired. (In some languages the formation of such questions may involve wh-movement – see the section below for grammatical description.) The name derives from the fact that most of the English interrogative words (with the exception of how) begin with the letters wh. These are the types of question sometimes referred to in journalism and other investigative contexts as the Five Ws.
Tag questions are a grammatical structure in which a declarative statement or an imperative is turned into a question by adding an interrogative fragment (the “tag”), such as right in “You remembered the eggs, right?”, or isn’t it in “It’s cold today, isn’t it?” Tag questions may or may not be answerable with a yes or no.
Languages may use both syntax and prosody to distinguish interrogative sentences (which pose questions) from declarative sentences (which state propositions). Syntax refers to grammatical changes, such as moving words around or adding question words; prosody refers here to changes in intonation while speaking.
In English, German, French and various other languages, questions are marked by a distinct word order featuring inversion – the subject is placed after the verb rather than before it: “You are cold” becomes