Forming questions

Why are questions such a special problem in English? To answer this, we will first have a look at the possibilities of our German syntax.

Little Red Riding Hood

In this well-known fairy tale there is a wolf who is a real lady killer and even likes to eat them. He starts with the grandmother and at some point in the story the following sentence appears:

The wolf eats the grandmother. wolf eats grandmother

We ignore his unusual taste and have a look at the grammatical aspects of his behaviour. We can clearly identify:

The wolf (SUBJECT) eats (PREDICATE) the grandmother (OBJECT).

(From here on, OBJECT will be O, SUBJECT will be S, and PREDICATE will be P.)

The German equivalent for that is:

Der Wolf frisst die Großmutter.

Now, a stupid German child could interrupt and state "The wolf eats the flowers, haha.", and patiently and with a warm smile on his face ("Look at this little idiot!") the story-teller will correct the child with the German sentence:

Die Großmutter frisst der Wolf!

This is completely correct because in German you can always put the most important part of your message into front position.

In a word-by-word translation, the English version of that sentence would be:

The grandmother eats the wolf. grandmother eats wolf

While the German child would stand corrected, an English one might cry with joy because of this cute little variation of the old story. This, however, is not based on cultural differences regarding eating habits, but, again, has to to do with grammar (yes, and gra'ma, haha).

While in
Die Großmutter (O) frisst (P) der Wolf(S). poor grandma is still eaten, the English version
The grandmother (S) eats (P) the wolf (O). makes her the hero of the day.

Why? The reason is that in English the good old concept of the cases is totally ignored. While the German "der Wolf" clearly identifies him as the subject of the action, the English need the strict sequence of the parts of speech (S-P-O) to express the correct meaning.

Just to make sure: We don't need to have an object in every sentence. It is only here to show where objects, adverbial phrases - basically everything else which is not subject or predicate - will go. So we could just as well say Subject - Predicate - Rest_Of_Sentence. But of course this sounds much too unprofessional for people like us.

So far, so good. But now you might ask...

What does all this have to do with questions?

Well, then ask yourself how you form a question in German. If you cannot believe that the old woman really attracts the beast, you might ask:

Frisst (P) der Wolf (S) die Großmutter (O)?

As you can see, in German you do not need any (S-P-O) structure to keep track of the action. (This is the correct moment to be grateful for our more complicated grammatical structures.) We just start the sentence with the verb and the question is ready. The English don't have this sort of freedom. They need a strict structure in their everyday language to keep track of ... who eats whom. (Just imagine the chaos in business, banking and bistros!)

In English we are in a dilemma here:

- On the one hand, we must put the predicate in front of the subject (to get a question).
- On the other hand, we have to leave it where it is (to preserve S-P-O).

The solution to the problem is very ... English:

You cut the predicate in two. No mercy! Thus we have one piece for every position we must fill.

In the sentence She is looking at him. the words is looking are the predicate.

To form a question, this predicate is divided into the auxiliary is as predicate part 1 (P1) and the full verb looking as predicate part 2 (P2).

A correct question would then be

Is (P1) she (S) looking (P2) at him (rest of sentence)?

The answer: She is, because he wants to eat her.

He eats her.

is more complicated because the predicate eats is much too short to be divided. Even for an English wolf. We need an auxiliary and whenever there is none in the sentence, we simply take the correct form of do.

For the sentence above we need does (Third person singular, remember? And this also causes eats to lose its s.) and the result is:

Does he eat her?

Of course you could also start with an interrogative pronoun (question word) and ask:

Why does he eat her?

Hm. Good question.

This results in the following set of rules and examples:

(The underlined phrases are the answers to the questions below.)

  1. He is waiting for the little girl now.
  2. When is he waiting for the little girl?

  3. He likes little girls with red wine for supper.
  4. What does he like for supper?

  5. She has got a big basket for her grandma.
  6. What has she got?

  7. She collects flowers in the wood.
  8. Where does she collect flowers?

  9. She is a girl with a red cap.
  10. (Oops, we have a problem. Follow the "Special case 1" link under this box.)

  11. She brings her grandma a basket.
  12. (Oops, we have another problem. Follow the "Special case 2" link under this box.)

  13. He is waiting for the little girl.
  14. (Problem number three. Follow the "Special case 3" link under this box.)

  15. Grandma was lucky that in the past the wolf was an unprotected wild animal.
  16. (OK, this is the last problem. Promise. Follow the "Special case 4" link under this box.)

The beauty of rules lies in their exceptions

Follow these links to find out about ...