Discover Challenge: Tough Questions

via Discover Challenge: Tough Questions

Do you think you have to deal with tough questions sometimes? Well count yourself lucky, if you’re a native English speaker, as if you’re an English learner, almost all questions are tough questions. Most of us don’t realise how easy we have it, never having to learn how to form questions, instead picking it up naturally. Even the most commonplace questions are surprisingly complex in their structure. For example:

“Where’s Tom?”

“I don’t know, he went about an hour ago.”

“Where did he go?”

Simple question, no? But let’s look at the thought process a learner has to go through. The two most important parts, the content words, and where and to go. Pretty easy to think of those. Then you think of the tense, it’s past, so if we change to go to its past form, we get went. And the question word goes at the start of the question, like other languages, so we’re good to go!

Where he went?

Oh, wait no, that’s not right, is it? You usually have to add a verb to lots of questions in English, don’t you? It’s do, isn’t it? Ok so…

Where he do wen…

No, that’s not right either. Maybe I have to put do in the past as well…

Where he did went?

Actually, I think teacher said it has to come before the subject. I’m still not sure what a subject is, but I feel like it’s he in this question…

Where did he went?

No, not that either. Could it be…

Where did he go?

It sounds ok to my ear, but it feels weird too, because the question is in the past, but to go is the main verb, and it’s not in the past. Funny. Actually, I’ll keep it simple:

Where he is?

But that’s not right, is it? It feels like it should be, because in the previous question, the subject (he) came before the main verb (go), and in this case is is the main verb. Ah, but now I remember my teacher saying that when you form a question with to be as the main verb, you put it before the subject. I guess is is a form of to be, even though it looks nothing like it, so I should say…

Where is he?

Ah that’s still too confusing! I’ll try another way:

Where I can find him?

That sounds weird. I know that did in the first question is something called an auxiliary verb (but it’s not always an auxiliary verb), and in a question (but did my teacher specify something about object questions, whatever they are?) it comes before the subject. I remember my teacher telling me that can is something called a modal verb, but might a modal verb be the same as an auxiliary verb? I’ll try treating it like one…

Where can I find him?

That sounds good. Ah, but now I remember my teacher telling me that it’s important to be polite in English, so I’ll turn it into an indirect question:

Excuse me, could you tell me where can I find him, please?


Excuse me, could you tell me where did he go?

But those sound a bit wrong. Surely it’s not right to say…

Excuse me, could you tell me where I can find him, please?


Excuse me, could you tell me where he went?

Ok, so if I ask an indirect question, and apparently it’s important to do so in English, I actually don’t have to follow all these ridiculous rules about adding did or reversing the order of modal verbs and subjects!? I give up!

And I’m not really exaggerating about how cumbersome and confusing question formation can be. As students gain more experience they get a bit more comfortable with questions, but it’s still very common to hear high-level students make what sound like basic errors. In addition to the complex way we make questions in English, there’s also the fact that a lot of other languages allow you to transform a statement into a question simply by raising the intonation at the end of the statement or, in writing, by simply adding a question mark. This has crept into English a little, but is still mainly used for checking information (It’s six o’clock already!?), or in informal, casual conversation (You hungry? – though in such cases it’s more a case of simply dropping Are).

So the next time you hear someone make a structural error when asking a question, spare a thought for how difficult it is for them. Tough questions indeed: even for an experienced English teacher, questions about questions are among the toughest questions you can face!

8 thoughts on “Discover Challenge: Tough Questions

  1. Your sentences remind me so much of when we lived in Québec. If we weren’t making the mistakes, we were hearing them. I was quite puzzled one evening when a lady asked me, “What did you hate for supper?” (The French tendency to stick an “h” on wherever it might possibly go confusing things even more.) “The hair is fresh tonight, no?”

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Oh haha so true. Even though I’m not native speaker English has come to be my first language, maybe I started learning at a very young age so I didn’t face these problems but now that I think about it after reading this, it must indeed be very difficult…

    Liked by 1 person

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