Expressions and sources:


What's the rule, in terms of grammar, for these subjectless questions (i appreciate the link to a grammar book with explanation)

Thank you in advance

  • 1
    I can't say how long ago for sure, but for me, this I believe this usage is rather contemporary. I can't say when people started doing this but today, they do it all the time in two-person conversations. – Lambie Apr 21 '18 at 21:49
  • If "rather contemporary" includes the early 19th century, then yes. books.google.com/… – Tᴚoɯɐuo Apr 22 '18 at 10:08
  • Questions and imperatives often don't really have a "subject" in the same sense that declarative sentences do. – stangdon Apr 22 '18 at 13:28

The absence of an explicit subject allows these questions to be asked in a variety of contexts.

Some of those sentences would mean the following if you are directly addressing someone:

Why are you pretending?

Why are you being so serious?

Why don't you go out and make a scene?

Or they could be actual questions about a third person:

Why is she|he pretending? What would cause a person to pretend in that situation?

Why is he|she being so serious. What's going on that he|she would be so serious now? It seems strange for him|her|them to be so serious.

Others could be rhetorical and refer to oneself indirectly as "one":

Why should anyone pretend? Why should I pretend?

Who should one be? Who should I be?

Why should anyone try? Why should I try?

And the most famous one of all:

To be, or not to be?

The verb BE is often omitted. Here the subject is provided by context.

  • For me, these are usually directed at an interlocutor and not about a third person or oneself. – Lambie Apr 21 '18 at 21:48
  • @Lambie: That's just you. I've heard them thousands of times in all three categories. But why try to convince you? – Tᴚoɯɐuo Apr 22 '18 at 10:04
  • I think I see what you mean but would not have expressed as you have done, that's all. It confused me. In conversation, it could refer to a person one is talking about, yes. So, I do agree. Why [should I] pretend otherwise? – Lambie Apr 22 '18 at 15:16

I suspect those questions are extracted from the lyrics of songs, which are seldom reliable sources of standard English. Each one is an abbreviated form of a question with a subject, which is thus implied.

Why [should I/we/you] pretend? Why [are you/we] so serious? Why [need/should] one make sense? Who [should I/one try] to be? Why [should/does one] try? Why [do I/you/we] not go out and make a scene?

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