## Answering a negative question with an infinitive phrase

7

This question came up in one of my student's textbooks. They are given three potential answers, only one being correct. Why does the text say that the answer below is not correct? I know it doesn't sound right, but why?

Q: Why don’t we go another way?
A: To save money.

Thanks for any help.

5What are the other "potential answers"? Sometimes we can discover what a question is really asking about by seeing all the choices. Also, is the question written by a native speaker? What is the title of the textbook, and who are its authors? – None – 2015-04-24T10:13:06.890

1@OP It is in your best interest to edit this question, otherwise people can't help you and you risk it getting closed. – Lucky – 2015-04-25T08:17:22.867

1I don't think this question should be closed. Although having more information is helpful in general, in this case it's not actually necessary. We don't need to know the answer to any of pazzo's questions to write an answer to the OP's question. – snailplane – 2015-04-25T19:56:41.140

@snailboat I agree that it should not be closed and I voted to keep it open, but at least the subject of the lesson or similar information would be helpful, so I hoped to prompt the OP to provide some... Unfortunately it didn't work :-( – Lucky – 2015-04-26T02:36:47.667

5

Q: Why don’t we go another way?

A: To save money.

There isn't anything ungrammatical about either sentence here. But, the social interaction between the two speakers seems to be wrong. There is a problem with the pragmatics.

It's important to note, though, this might just be because we haven't heard the rest of the conversation. This could be a perfectly normal exchange. We'll look at that a bit later.

Here's why the response above is strange. Grammatically, we can identify different types of clause. The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (Huddleston & Pullum, 2002, p. 853) identifies five main types of clause:

• Declarative: You are quiet
• Closed interrogative: Are you quiet?
• Open interrogative: When are you quiet?
• Exclamative: How quiet you are!
• Imperative: Be quiet

These different types of clause have different grammatical properties. Notice, for example, that in the interrogative clauses there is subject auxiliary inversion are you instead of you are. Also with the imperative, we see a grammatical sentence that has no subject, unlike the in the other examples. The exclamative has a wh- word fronted to the beginning of the clause, but unlike the interrogative clauses, there is no subject auxiliary inversion. We see you are, not are you.

Now, we tend to associate these different types of clause with specific types of communicative acts. So we associate declarative clauses with people making statements. We associate interrogatives with questions, in particular questions asking for information. We associate exclamatives with exclamations and we associate imperative clauses with people giving directives (telling people what to do).

However, we don't always use imperatives when we want to make a directive. For example look at the following sentence:

• You must be there by 5pm.

The sentence above uses a declarative clause. However, it is being used as a directive. The speaker is telling the listener what to do. We can also use declarative clauses to make questions:

• You gave it to her?

The questions in the examples above are declarative clauses, not interrogative ones (notice that there is no subject auxiliary inversion in the Lady Gaga question, even though it uses the interrogative word what).

In the original Poster's example, we see an interrogative clause:

• Why don't we go another way?

However, negative interrogative clauses using why are usually not questions they are usually directives. They are usually suggestions. The Original Poster's interrogative would normally be interpreted similarly to:

• Let's go another way!

Because this is not a question, because this is really a suggestion, the response is wrong:

To save money.

We understand this phrase as an infinitive of purpose. It tells us why we did or did not do something. But the speaker is not (in the normal reading) asking for information. They do not want to know why we do something. They are making a suggestion. So a correct response to Original Poster's first sentence is something like:

• Yes, that's a good idea.

This is a way of agreeing to the suggestion that we go a different way.

Garden Paths

Sometimes a sentence can have more than one meaning. If we do not have a clear context for the sentence, we will just give it the most likely reading. With negative why-interrogatives, we will normally read the sentence as a suggestion, unless there is some reason to believe that the action described did happen, does already happen, or will definitely happen. If we assume that the action we are reading about does happen, or will (continue to) happen, we are likely to read the sentence as an information question:

• A It's always really slow this way. I don't mind it being slow, I prefer it. But I was wondering, why do we go this way? Why don't we go the other way?

If we assume that the speaker expects to continue going this way, we won't interpret the interrogatives in these examples as suggestions. They are questions seeking information. In this situation the correct response would be:

• B: To save money.

The reason that we decide that the response in the Original Poster's example is bad, is that without any other information, we automatically assume that the first sentence is a suggestion. Having already interpreted it as a suggestion, the response seems inappropriate. We have seen though, that in reality it is not necessarily wrong.

The purpose of this question in the textbook is to see if students understand this method of making suggestions. It is testing their interpretation of Why don't we-sentences.

When ambiguous sentences like this lead us to one particular interpretation even though they (might) have another meaning in this context, we sometimes call them "garden path" sentences. We could argue that the answer to the Original Poster's example was correct. Because we did not have any context, the first sentence was a garden path sentence. We are just misunderstanding the question. However, if you want to pass an English test, it is important that you can recognise interrogatives used as suggestions.

Garden path sentences are often used in jokes. Here is one of my favourites:

There were two goldfish in a tank. One of them turned to the other and said: "How do you drive this thing?"

Note:

Notice that this feature of why-interrogatives is not shared by negative interrogative clauses which use different wh- words. For example, consider:

• Who didn't he tell?
• For what reason do we not go another way?

Neither of these would be interpreted as a suggestion. Also notice that to save money is a good answer to the second question here.

1+1 Also, consider that the transform of "Why don't we go another way" + "To save money" = "We don't go another way to save money", and in that the scope of the negator changes: "It is not in order to save money that we go another way". – StoneyB on hiatus – 2015-04-25T20:42:30.327

3

There are two likely reasons this could be considered wrong.

One is grammatical in deciding that the answer is wrong because it does not take the form of a complete sentence. Native speakers, however, should not have trouble understanding this response simply because it isn't a complete sentence. Whether or not this is the reason the response is considered incorrect is a question that can only be answered with more information about the workbook itself.

The other likely possibility is more to do with meaning and is a little more difficult to understand. "Why don't we go another way?" implicitly asks for an explanation, and the response, "To save money," doesn't offer a good or complete explanation. If I received this response to that question, I'd still be left wondering, "How will going this way save money?" The chosen response could be marked incorrect because it does not fully answer the base question of, "Why?"

Of these reasons, the second is by far the better reason to consider the response incorrect. As a native speaker, if I asked you, "Why don't we go another way?" and you responded with, "To save money," I would be very confused because there is no obvious way for me to figure out how or why going another way would cost more money.

But you'll also find that workbooks depend very much on the opinions of their authors. It's very possible that the author of the workbook is trying to teach a very specific lesson with this type of question, and the reason this answer is considered incorrect in that context might, in the author's mind, have more to do with the intended lesson than any larger, more general concern. If you would like a more thorough and specific explanation, please give us more information about the workbook and the question itself, such as:

• The name of the workbook
• The difficulty level of the workbook
• The particular chapter or lesson in which this question appears
• Any other information about the workbook you might think contributes to the context of this question

0

It's incorrect because it doesn't make sense as an answer.

It's semantically nonsensical or unclear. It does not supply enough information.

It fails to resolve our expectation that an answer will contain information responsive to two or three questions: 1) Will/shall we go another way?; (if not), 2). Will we go any way at all (or what)?; and, 3) (With regard to what's been established): Why or why not?

Q: Why don’t we go another way?

A: To save money.

It could mean that we aren't going anywhere in order to save money. Or it could mean that we are continuing on or starting along the current way, or the previously mentioned way, in order to save money.

It provides a reason without first making clear whether the negative polarity is being implicitly continued or implicitly reversed.

We don't have the same problem with a positively polarized question:

Q: Why do we work? A: To earn a living.

Let's try answering some other Why not questions with full infinitives or answers beginning with full infinitives:

Question: Why didn't the chicken cross the road?

1. Answer: To get to the other side.
2. Answer: To not get to the other side.
3. Answer: To take a rest.

We will generally find such answers either nonsensical or ambiguous. In certain cases, perhaps enough information is supplied to render the polarity of the answer clear or acceptably clear:

Answer: To save wear and tear on its chicken shoes.

We will normally expect a full subject and verb to be stated before an infinitive, to supply sufficient meaning so as to be clear:

We're not going that way because it costs too much. We can save money if we keep going this way.

0

Yes.you.can.

But like everything else, context in king. (And since everyone is just throwing answers at you without the additional information that has been asked for, here is another throw).

Example 1

Day 1. Tommy, age 6, sees his sister, age 10, wearing makeup for the first time and asks her:

Q: Why are you wearing make up?
A: To look more like Mommy.

Day 2. Tommy sees that his sister is no longer wearing make up and asks here:

Q: Why aren't you wearing make up?
A: To look more like me.

Example 2

There are three ways out of town. Route 1, Route 2, and Route 3. The service stations on Routes 1 and 2 charge $4.00/gallon for gasoline. The stations on Route 3 charge$3.50/gallon. You head out of town on Route 3, which is more crowded, less maintained, and slower. A back seat driver mentions that Route 3 doesn't save time or maintenance costs and asks:

Q: Why don’t we go another way?
A: To save money.

The following are all valid, depending on the context in which they are asked and answered.

Q: Why don't you take the bus?
A: To save time.

Q: Why don't we break the truce?
A: To maintain the peace.

Q: Why don't we just skip school?
A: To avoid getting in trouble.

Q: Why don't we just delete the question?
A: To give the OP an opportunity to edit it by providing more information.

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