Are there stupid questions?

During my time as a university lecturer I would preface all my course outlines and begin some classes with the assertion: There is no such thing as a stupid question, but there may be such a thing as a stupid silence. This was due in part to the fact that I had many students from Asian cultures where respect for the teacher may show as a reluctance to interrupt and ask for help or explanation. I wanted to put over the message that failing to ask me when clarity was needed was much worse than asking, and that the questioner, far from looking stupid, would often win the gratitude of others in the group who also wanted to know but had been too timid to raise their hands. I suppose that strictly I should have limited my comment to There is no such thing as a stupid inquiry, which the following piece that I published in the Language Close-Up column of ELT Journal in Spring 1983 will explain.

John Higgins, Chiang Mai, March 2023

There is an ambiguity about the word ‘question’ in that it can describe either a grammatical form or a discourse function. As a grammatical term its markers are familiar. A question is something that in writing ends with a question mark, in speech has certain intonation patterns associated with it, and syntactically usually has particular word order. But a grammatical question can serve many functions. It can be a request:
   Could you lend me a hand?
It can be an offer:
   Would you like a cup of tea?
It can be a warning:
   Do you know there’s a strong current here?
Or it can be a threat:
   Do you want a punch on the nose?
A test for a function is how it can be paraphrased. These four examples can properly be paraphrased as follows:
   I am requesting your help.
   I am offering you a cup of tea.
   I am warning you about the dangerous current.
   I am threatening you with a punch on the nose.
If we eliminate examples like these we are left with a hard core of questions which can only be paraphrased with sentences beginning “I want to know …” However, these ‘real’ questions are not functionally uniform, and I would like to suggest a further classification and a set of terms to identify the classes. Using the right terms can help to remind us just what work the various kinds of question are doing. The three terms that I am proposing are inquiry, query and quiz.

Under inquiry I would include all questions asked because the questioner needs the information in the answer. You make an inquiry to find out the way, the time, the price, the meaning of something not understood, or any other piece of needed information. There are several felicity conditions surrounding such question and answer sequences in real life. The responder expects the answer to be listened to and acknowledged. Inquiries are normally three move exchanges, consisting of question, answer and thanks. Another point is that the questioner may expect the responder to know the answer but cannot be certain of it. “I don’t know” may not be a welcome answer but it is a perfectly legitimate one. Similarly questioners expects responders to give the answer if they know it. A sequence like:
   What’s the time?
   I know, but I’m not telling you.

has an extremely childish ring and would sound very odd between adults. An adult who, for whatever reason, was unwilling to answer would almost certainly tell a lie and say “I don’t know” or “My watch has stopped.”

A query, on the other hand, is a question to which the answer is not important. It can be a phatic question asked just to sustain a social dialogue, like “How are you?” Or it can be a rhetorical question in monologue, like “Where would Britain be without the railways?” In either case the responder is not doing the questioner a favour by answering, so the exchange can be completed in two moves or even one.

A quiz is a question asked to find out what the responder knows. It is not asked because the questioner needs to know, and the responder will probably not be thanked for the answer. What will happen instead is that the questioner will give a judgement, “That’s right” or “I don’t think so”, or may just keep silent, leaving the responder to judge whether the answer was acceptable or unacceptable. A quiz may serve as the introductory move in a piece of wordplay, a riddle or a joke or a bet. Apart from that it is rare in conversation between adults of equal status, but very common between adults and children or among children. It is, of course, one of the main components of the instructional situation. All teachers ask quizzes often.

There is, though, a particular danger facing language teachers, namely that they may think, if they give their students practice in answering, and perhaps asking, quizzes, that they have equipped them to deal with all forms of questions. Language learners, however, may need more exposure than they get to discourse situations where you thank a person for an answer and where “I don’t know” may be the correct answer rather than a shameful confession of failure. Distinguishing between inquiries, queries and quizzes in our own minds may help us to avoid this danger.