null WH questions

David Gil gil at EVA.MPG.DE
Tue Oct 27 11:31:58 UTC 1998

On the subject of null WH questions, Steven asks ...

> I'm wondering to what extent constructions like these are different
> the things one can get in very colloquial English, such as:
>       And you're going to ... ?
>       And your name is ... ?
>       Because ... ?

As a native speaker of English and Hebrew, let me stick my neck out and
try to answer this question in terms of my own introspective judgements
as to when such constructions would be appropriate.

For me, Steven's examples above have the following two properties:

(a) They are *very* contextually limited, presupposing a context
involving some conventionalized form of questioning, eg. an MC on a TV
quiz program, or an official interrogating somebody or perhaps getting
them to fill out a form.  Related to (a) is ...

(b) They imply that the speaker is in a positon of power over the
addressee.  (And hence you wouldn't use these constructions speaking to
somebody towards whom you felt obliged to be polite or diffident.)

Similar examples can be constructed also in Hebrew, with the same
felicity conditions:


"your name?"

In contrast, in Hebrew, the null WH question which I mentioned
previously (involving the preposition _biSvil_ "for") is a completely
different kind of creature.  Formally, it's resrtricted to this one
preposition, and pragmatically it has entirely different properties:  it
would be most appropriately used in informal conversation among peers,
and doesn't feel condescending in any way.

Turning to Malay / Indonesian, for which I may have reasonable
non-native intuitions; here, in the dialects that allow such
constructions, my tentative impression also is that they aren't
associated with the very specific felicity conditions that Steven's
English examples have.  But on the other hand, they're constrained
structurally, occurring only with prepositions.

In summary, I think that the interesting examples that have come up in
this thread are representative of a wide variety of very different
construction types, distinguishable both by their formal properties and
by their pragmatic felicity conditions.


David Gil

Department of Linguistics
Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology
Inselstrasse 22
D-04103 Leipzig

tel:  49-341-9952310
fax:  49-341-9952119
email:  gil at

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