How would a native speaker understand a malformed question?

6

In Portuguese, to transform an affirmative phrase in interrogative, you just append a question mark. When learning English, beginners sometimes just append the question mark, forgetting about inverting verb/noun order, using question words and auxiliary verbs. So a phrase like

The book is on the table.

is wrongly converted to interrogative form as

The book is on the table?

So, I wonder how would a native speaker understand that malformed question?

Click Ok

Posted 2013-03-10T22:19:52.403

Reputation: 473

1+1, in Italian is pretty the same, albeit, in some cases, we would say "Is on the table the book?" – None – 2013-03-10T22:25:18.450

1@Carlo_R. Interesting! Is the implication there that you're asking "Is [the object which is] on the table the book?" meaning you know there is an object on the table, and want to know if that object is the book? Or are you in fact asking where the book is, and guessing it is on the table? – WendiKidd – 2013-03-10T22:32:10.090

1@Wendi, the latter. If Italians ask that way, they guess where the object is, although intonation is important in cases like these. – None – 2013-03-10T22:37:47.140

Answers

11

I wouldn't say that your question is wrong, necessarily, just that it implies something different than if you changed the word order.

The book is on the table?

If I heard this, I would interpret it as a surprised remark checking the veracity of a statement. For example:

A: Where's the calculus book we need for the test tomorrow?

B: Jimmy left it on the table.

A: The book is on the table? Why wouldn't he just put it back on the shelf?

Which all boils down to: "The book is on the table? [I expected the book to be somewhere else]." I was looking for the book and couldn't find it, but I definitely didn't expect to find it on the table. This is also a rhetorical question, which is a question to which you already know the answer. You've already been told the book is on the table; you're expressing surprise at this discovery. You're not really looking for more information.

Now if you invert the word order, you get:

Is the book on the table?

The implication here is that I'm looking for the book, am not sure where it is, but have a guess that it might be on the table. So I'm checking to see if it is in fact on the table before I go look for it there (and before I search other places). I actually want information in this case, and could expect a response such as:

No, you left the book in the car, remember?

Or:

Yes, I put it there an hour ago!

WendiKidd

Posted 2013-03-10T22:19:52.403

Reputation: 14 749

4I agree that "The book is on the table?" as a question implies surprise for some reason. I just wanted to add, in addition to the example you provided ("Why isn't it on the shelf?"), the surprise could be related more to the table than to the book. For example: "The book is on the table? Doesn't he realize I just refinished this table a couple hours ago?" – J.R. – 2013-03-11T08:58:39.160

1Emphasis (and context) definitely matter in interpretation of The book is on the table?. It can be questioning that the object on the table is a book, that the location of the book is on the table, or, as @J.R. has pointed out, the whole situation where the book is on the table. – yoozer8 – 2013-03-11T17:15:36.790