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Book B9: Fluency in asking questions

Fluency in asking questions

Fluency in asking questions
By Prof. Kev Nair

"Fluency in Asking Questions is devoted entirely to the role of questions in fluent speech and fluency training."
The New Indian Express.

Please note: This book is not sold separately. It is available for sale only as part of Fluentzy: The English Fluency Encyclopedia.

Sample pages from this book

How to make questions

Role of questions
Are you really good at asking questions in fluent English? If you’re not, do you think you’ll be able to have a satisfactory chat or conversation in English with someone?

Suppose you’re at a party or in a gathering. Or suppose that you’re travelling on a train. What will make a conversation go on? You see, it’s mainly your capacity to ask questions. If you’re not able to ask questions, you’ll find it difficult to keep up conversations, and the conversations you have will come to a stop quickly — or you’ll find yourself forced back into the position of a silent listener. Others around you will go away with a wrong impression about you — that you do not know English.

Again, if you want to effectively carry out a number of communicative functions in English, you need to be good at asking questions in fluent English.

Suppose you want some information from someone or somewhere. What alone will help you get the information you want? Only your skill in putting questions. Isn’t that so? Nothing else. If you ask someone about something, they’ll give you some kind of a reply. That may not be the kind of information you want. Or that may only be part of what you want. You’d then want extra information or the right information, or clarifications or explanations. Which means that you have to put questions — more questions, the right kind of questions.

Or suppose that you want to ask somebody for something, or to offer something to somebody, or to make a polite suggestion. Or suppose that you want to buy something from somewhere. Do you think you’ll be able to do these things effectively in English if you aren’t fluent in asking questions in English?

Mind you, most non-native speakers of English are handicapped in one way: In schools and colleges, they never had much opportunity of learning to make ‘questions’. They only had the opportunity of learning to make ‘answers’. And of course, generally speaking, the answers could not be in the form of questions. The answers had to be in the form of statements.

Many non-native speakers of English started facing the problem of having to make questions only when they left school or college. They came face to face with this problem only when they found themselves having to SPEAK in English — in real-life situations.

Difficulty in framing questions
Most educated people are able to produce questions correctly in writing. True. But when they have to produce questions in speech, they falter and fail.

Sometimes, they end up asking such un-English questions as “What you’re doing?” (instead of “What are you doing?”), “Where you’ve put it?” (instead of “Where have you put it?”), “Why she’s standing there?” (instead of “Why is she standing there?”), “When you came?” (instead of “When did you come?”), “How she is managing?” (instead of “How is she managing?”), “Whether he is coming?” (instead of “Is he coming?”), “Whether you will do it?” (instead of “Will you do it?”), “Whether he can come?” (instead of “Can he come?”), etc.

At other times, they end up muttering nonsense. Or they become nervous and embarrassed and keep mum — or they fall back on their mother tongue.

Even very highly-educated people can be heard to make these sorts of distortions. Yes, they are distortions, because they do not represent natural or genuine English. This is not the kind of English that native speakers of English speak. It’s artificial English.

Of course, you may already know all this. You may already know that this is not the right way to frame questions. But the problem is this: If the right question patterns are not firmly fixed in your mind, you’re sure to slip up and utter questions with “un-English” patterns.

So it’s now time for us to pay close attention to question patterns.
You know, making questions is one of the most important spoken English skills. One of the most difficult skills, too. Of course, many people are likely to be thinking like this: “Oh! That is quite easy. I can make any number of questions without difficulty”. Perhaps you can. But the problem is not simply of making questions. The problem is of making them while you’re speaking — on your feet.

Mind you, you’ll never be able to learn “right” question patterns from a list of “wrong” and “right” samples. The thing to do is to get the “right” question patterns imprinted on your mind — so they don’t fade away. They’ll then remain there, and act as the framework for all the questions you utter. And soon, it becomes second nature to you to use those patterns and to produce the ‘right’ sort of questions.

Chief reason for the difficulty
Here’s the chief reason for the difficulty in asking questions in the right way:

The way you should arrange your words when you utter a question — that is different from the way in which you arrange your words when you utter a statement. That is, when you’re uttering a simple sentence (a single independent clause) in the form of a statement, you order your words in one way. But when you’re uttering a simple sentence (a single independent clause) in the form of a question, you order your words in another way.

For example, when you say, “John is a good boy”, you’re uttering a statement, and not a question. (Grammatically speaking, you’re using a declarative structure here). But when you arrange the words in a different order and say “Is John a good boy?”, you’re uttering a question. (Grammatically speaking, you’re using an interrogative structure here). A basic difference between a statement (declarative structure) and a question (interrogative structure) is this: A statement normally starts with a Subject element and is followed by a verb. But in questions, the Subject element is pushed into another position. (We’ll soon look at how this word-order reversal happens).

You see, simple sentences belong to four syntactic classes, and each has a separate semantic function. Here are the names of these syntactic classes (with the corresponding semantic class name given within brackets):

• Declarative form (= Statements). • Interrogative form (= Questions) • Exclamative form (= Exclamations) • Imperative form (= Directives).

If you want to speak English fluently, the right order of words must come easily and naturally — whether you’re uttering a statement or a question or an exclamation or a directive. The right word-order must come as second nature to you, almost without thinking.

So the most important thing you should do now is to get the patterns of questions in English fixed in your mind and to get into the habit of uttering questions in those patterns. You know, any advanced learner of your level can easily achieve these goals through constant and thorough practice — constant and thorough practice with a sufficiently large collection of everyday questions.

And this sort of extensive practice is just what you’re going to do. And you’re going to get large collections of everyday questions that are sufficient for your purpose.

Question types
There are 3 major types of questions. They are:

• ‘Yes-No’ questions. • Wh-word questions. • Alternative questions.

Yes-No questions
‘Yes-No’ questions are questions that expect ‘affirmation’ or ‘negation’ as a reply. The most common word that expresses affirmation is ‘Yes’, and the most common word that expresses negation is ‘No’. That is why these questions are called ‘Yes-No’ questions. Here are a few examples of yes-no questions:

• Is he a nice person? • Isn’t she coming to the wedding? • Are there any objections? • Aren’t you ready yet? • Doesn’t she like coffee? • Did you paint it yourself? • Would you like an orange? • Can I come too? • Hasn’t she been here often? • Can’t we do something about it?

As you can see from these examples, a yes-no question starts with an auxiliary verb. Here’s a complete list of the auxiliaries that are normally used to make yes-no questions:


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