English Language & Linguistics
Linguistics Challenges: What Do You Know?
Which of the following is not an acceptable (grammatical) question in English? Try to define what is wrong with it as precisely as you can.
- What did you think Peter hit?
- What did you think that Peter hit?
- What did you think hit Bill?
- What did you think that hit Bill?
You almost certainly decided that questions (1) and (2) are fine (even if you prefer one of these to the other), that (3) is also fine, but that (4) is ungrammatical: you'd never ask a question like this in English.
Notice something interesting. (1) and (2) ask the same thing: the difference between them is an extra that in question (2). On the basis of (1) and (2) then, you might conclude that English optionally allows you to insert that into questions. Contrast this with (3) and (4), where we decided that (3) is acceptable, but (4) is not.
Why is this? It’s very unlikely, unless you’d had some training in linguistics, that you knew the answer to this, even though you know and agree that (4) is unacceptable. This illustrates an important point about studying language and linguistics: the knowledge speakers have about their language is tacit. That is, speakers don't consciously know the rules of their language, yet they apply those rules apparently effortlessly in using language all the time. In other words, you know rules about forming questions in English that tell you which of (1)-
This raises interesting questions for syntacticians (linguists who study the structure of sentences) and acquisitionists (linguists interested in language ‘learning’). Syntacticians develop theories to explain what the rules you know unconsciously must be like, whilst acquisitionists wonder where those rules come from and how they get into the minds of speakers. Nobody ever sat you down as a child and spent a morning teaching you all the rules of question-
Why do two interpretations arise?
To understand this, first consider the following:
- Did you think Peter hit the wall?
- Did you think Peter hit what?
- What did you think Peter hit?
In (5), the person asking the question has some idea that it was a wall that Peter hit. If the person asking the question didn’t think it was a wall that Peter hit, they could replace the wall with what, as in (6). But, (6) isn’t how you’d ask the question in English; instead, you have to move what to the front of the sentence.
How does this explain the ungrammaticality of (4)? Well, syntacticians have proposed the following rule to capture what speakers know in order to prevent them creating questions like (4):
In English, it is not permissible to move a question word from a position immediately after the word that.
In (1) and (2), that is optional, because the question word is never immediately after that:
What did you think Peter hit _? Compare: Did you think Peter hit the wall?
What did you think that Peter hit _? Compare: Did you think that Peter hit the wall?
In (3) and (4) the question word starts off in a different place. This is not problematic for (3), because there’s no that. But in (4), if we insert the word that, the question word then moves from immediately after it, and this violates the rule we proposed above:
What did you think _ hit Bill? Compare: Did you think the car hit Bill?
What did you think that _ hit Bill? Compare: Did you think that the car hit Bill?