Not a question?

Another post inspired by QI. In this episode, Stephen Fry asks the question “Why do the columns of the Parthenon look straight?” (youtube clip is here.)

And the answer turns out to be:

“Because they are straight”

One of the other guests goes bananas about this. “That’s not a question!” he complains. The whole scene is actually pretty funny, with Fry crumbling under the pressure. But it’s a valid point. Is that really a question? Probably most people feel that something is at least a little wrong with it.

The question all by itself is, strictly speaking, a well-formed question. What I mean is that the syntax and phonology were all in order: the wh-word got fronted, there’s been do-insertion, and Fry uttered it with appropriate wh-question intonation.

The problem is not with the question, but with the question-answer pairing. If the answer to the question had been “it’s an optical illusion, they actually bulge”, then no one would have said anything.

To put it another way, the problem is pragmatic, not grammatical. The question wasn’t used properly. We expect questions to be requests for information. For instance, if someone asks Where is the milk?, a good answer is In the fridge or I drank it all because they provide the questioner with some useful information. An answer like Where it should be is not useful. (Although I find myself doing this all the time with my three year old: “Where is my doll?” “Where you left it.”)

A question like Why are the columns straight? isn’t really a request for information when the answer is because they are. The way the question is formed already takes for granted that the pillars are straight, so the answer provides nothing new. I think this is essentially the argument that the guest on QI was trying to make.

The oddness of the question is why it appeared on QI in the first place. The questions are often designed to trick guests into offering some commonly believed, but incorrect, information. As Fry goes on to explain, it was once thought that there was some visual illusion, but it turns out that the pillars are actually straight.

On the other hand, it seems just a little unfair to challenge this as “not a question” because it isn’t informative. It wouldn’t be the first question like that Fry has asked. In the context of events like game shows or school we normally suspend this requirement the questions be genuine requests for information. When a history teacher asks a student “when did Napoleon die?”, it’s not because she doesn’t know. The student’s answer won’t inform the teacher. Similarly, when Stephen Fry asks a question, it isn’t a genuine request for information because, as Sean Connery said on Celebrity Jeopardy, the guy’s just reading from a card. It still “counts” as a question because, presumably, not everyone on the panel or in the audience knows the answer. I guess this one just crossed the pragmatic threshold for that one guest.


Filed under Linguistics

2 responses to “Not a question?

  1. The QI guest’s reaction is funny. His frustration appears to be based on the difference between true questions, which seek information the speaker is lacking, and demonstration questions, which aim to test the hearer by requesting a response. Demonstration questions function like requests rather than questions. Although I’ve only watched a few clips from QI, it appears that Fry’s questions are always of the demonstration sort. And that what he is testing (requesting) is a response that is interesting and funny rather than comprised of information he is seeking. Surely, guests on QI know they will hear requests for interesting responses. But maybe they expect the request itself to appear as if it is a true question. That would explain the guest’s frustration.


  2. As stated, the question seems fine to me. The inclusion of the word “look” surely indicates that something is up (as you say, it was once believed it was an optical illusion). That, plus the game show context, makes the question entirely legitimate in my opinion.


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