What is a question?

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For many years I have been a fan of the TV gameshow Jeopardy! I have been recounted tales of when I was two years old, and I would be dancing in front of the television to the Final Jeopardy! music. I haven’t watched it in quite some time now unfortunately (partly because cable is too expensive and partly because I am still not entirely over the passing of Alex Trebek) but for some reason, the show popped into my head, and I started to think about questions.

For those of you who may not have seen the show, Jeopardy! is a trivia gameshow where contestants are given an answer as a prompt, and they then must respond to the host with the question that would generate that answer. It is not as tricky as it may sound though. For instance, contestants would be read the prompt “Snake Island off Brazil’s coast is filled with golden lanceheads a deadly pit type of this snake” and would respond with the question “what is a viper?”

We won’t focus on the other rules regarding the dollar amounts of the questions, the daily doubles, or the wagering in final jeopardy. For now, let’s just focus on the question formation.

In a random survey of 60 Jeopardy! categories from the Jeopardy! YouTube page (the equivalent of 5 games), contestants responded with 185 ‘what’ questions, and 115 ‘who’ questions. Let’s also note that this number may be slightly skewed thanks in part to current reigning champion Matt Amodio who has drawn some heat for his propensity to respond to every prompt with ‘what’s’, even if a ‘who’ would be more appropriate. Just take a listen to his response from the category named Audible (most contestants would respond with “Who is (Matthew) McConaughey?”).

Unexpected responses aside, we do see that using ‘who’ and ‘what’ are the two question words that these contestants are using. This is not mandated by the rules of Jeopardy! in any way. Although I was not able to find examples, there are reported instances of contestants responding with ‘where’ questions. According to the Jeopardy! rules, you are only required to respond in the form of a question. So how can you know for sure if your Jeopardy! response is valid?

The first thing we need to ask ourselves is: what is a question and how is it formed in English? Questions are sentences that are aimed to have the addressee (the person you are speaking to) to provide information. There are several different types of questions that a person could ask, and not all of them are acceptable Jeopardy! responses.

Typical Jeopardy! responses are known as wh-questions. These types of questions use words like who, what, where, when, or why to signal to the addressee what kind of response you are expecting. If you ask a question with “when”, you are likely expecting some sort of response dealing with time. In the same vein, if you ask a “where” question, you would be looking for a place.

The funny thing about Jeopardy! is that even though there are plenty of responses that are formed with place names or specific years, the contestants will use “what” for these questions. There are a few reasons for this. In the case of the place names, using a where would seem a little strange based on how the answers are usually worded. If you asked someone the question “Where is New Orleans?”, you would probably be confused if someone answered with something like “This city was founded in 1718 by Jean Baptiste le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville, y’all” (A Round of Gulf Coast category from June 11, 2013).

The second reason for these “what” questions is that contestants are under a large amount of pressure to perform quickly. If you were on the show, and you were asked to respond to a prompt quickly in the form of a question, it would just be easier to use a default “what” than it would be to stress about whether a “when” or a “where” could apply.

So this tells us “what” a question is, but “how” are questions made? For wh-questions, the sentence is first generated to mirror how the answer would look. So, imagine you had a declarative statement like “The capital of Ontario is Toronto.” To ask what the capital of Ontario is as a question, the initial form of it would be “The capital of Ontario is what?” This is acceptable as it is, although you could imagine someone saying something like this in an incredulous way perhaps (“The capital of Ontario is WHAT?!?!).

Once we have this form of the sentence, the wh-word will move to the front of the sentence and give us the question “What is the capital of Ontario?” What this means for Jeopardy! contestants is that, when faced with the prompt “This city is the capital of Ontario”, it would be perfectly fine for them to answer with a question like “Toronto is what?” This would likely raise a few eyebrows though, and it would be tough to do on the spot. Again, with the pressure these contestants are under, it’s easier to try and keep things simple and consistent.

Another way to form a question is through the process of auxiliary inversion, where the auxiliary verb (can, may, is) is moved to the front of the sentence. These questions are known as yes/no questions because the answer to them is, unsurprisingly, a yes or a no. This type of question is, surprisingly, permitted by the rules of Jeopardy! It would result in seemingly strange question and answer pairings; “Is it Toronto?” is not the type of question that would elicit the answer “It is the capital of Ontario.”

This type of question, apparently, has been used in the past by some contestants. I was unable to track down any physical evidence of this, but it is possible within the rules.

The rules of Jeopardy! (while not explicitly published anywhere) do not require the questions provided by the contestants to be grammatical or to match up with the answer explicitly. The questions are only required to be clearly identifiable as questions.

Questions that present two or more possible options are known as alternative questions. This would be the type of question that you might ask your child at desert time. “Would you like cake, or ice cream?” These types of questions could not be used in a game of Jeopardy! because the goal of Jeopardy! is to provide a question response that would satisfy the answer provided, and the answer to an alternative question is one of the alternatives presented. It would be confusing and difficult to construct an answer prompt that would elicit this type of a question. I also don’t imagine you could convince the judges that “What is Queen Elizabeth or Queen Victoria?” is a good response to “This female ruler was the first member of the Royal family to live at Buckingham Palace” even though one of those alternatives is correct.

Another question type not allowed in the rules of Jeopardy! is known as a tag question. It is called this because you are adding a ‘tag’ to a declarative sentence that turns it into a question. An example of this would be if you think that Tobias likes jean shorts, but you aren’t 100% confident and you would like some confirmation, so you would say “Tobias likes jean shorts, doesn’t he?” The first portion of the sentence is just a declarative statement (Tobias likes jean shorts), and it is the “doesn’t he” that turns the whole thing into a question.

The response to a question like this would either be true because the initial statement was true, or false for because the initial statement was false. Because of this, it would be difficult to construct a Jeopardy! style answer where the contestant could provide a tag question response. This has not been tried by a contestant, but I cannot imagine it being accepted by the judges.

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A final type of question that would not be allowed by the rules of Jeopardy! is an inflection question. This is done in English, not by using question words or by rearranging the sentence in any way. Instead, these questions are made by raising the pitch of your voice at the end of the sentence as if to say “I think this right??” A question like this would not be permitted in Jeopardy! because you are not explicitly forming a question with your statement, you are instead questioning whether the statement that you said is correct.

All of this is not to say that there are no fun ways to bend the rules of Jeopardy! So long as your response is a proper question, you can still respond in some clever, corner-case ways.

For example, if the answer provided was something like “This book series has children around the globe searching crowded malls and beaches for the title character, portrayed in a red and white sweater and toque.” A perfectly acceptable and legal response question would be “Where’s Waldo?” The Jeopardy! team even cites similar instances of this situation that are permitted in this article.

So now we have seen that there are several ways that you can make a question in English, and many of them are permitted in Jeopardy! However, if you ever find yourself on the show, it is likely easier to just stick with the traditional “What/Who is __?” type responses. Under those bright studio lights with real money on the line, it would be a shame for you to make a silly error that get’s your response disqualified just so you could look a little bit clever.

Thank you for reading folks! I hope this was informative and interesting to you. Be sure to come back next week for more interesting linguistic insights. If you have any topics that you want to know more about, please reach out and I will do my best to write about them. In the meantime, remember to speak up and give linguists more data.


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