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In my textbook, there is a question like this,

Fill in the blank:
I’ve come to ask a big _________ of you.

and the answer is “favor”.

Is it wrong to put “question” in the blank? If so, why is it wrong?

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    This is a great learner’s question, and a good example of why so many people were against calling ELL questions “basic” in our early days. For a native, it is simple, almost intuitive, to recognize how favor fits into the blank well, and question does not. Explaining why, though, is quite a hard challenge. – J.R. Aug 23 '18 at 10:41
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It is wrong because the form used here is a request to do a favor (= I've come to ask you for a favor), with expectation to receive that favor from another person. If you simply substitute the word 'question' for 'favor' that would mean the speaker expects to receive a question from them, which makes little sense. A possible sentence with 'question' (no 'of' preposition):

I’ve come to ask you a (big) question.

  • Here’s a pertinent Ngram (the British English version looks similar). I wonder if we word it the way we do out of a sense of politeness, since, almost by definition, we are imposing when we are asking a favor of someone. – J.R. Aug 23 '18 at 10:35
  • Really interesting. Look how the diagram changes after my addition of 'ask you a question': books.google.com/ngrams/… – Alex_ander Aug 23 '18 at 10:53
  • Or, for that matter, do me a favor. – J.R. Aug 23 '18 at 10:55
  • It always makes me laugh when someone says 'Can I ask you a question?', as that's exactly what they're doing! – Tim Aug 23 '18 at 15:49
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Yes, because a question is not something that has size. Therefore, "big question" and "small" question are nonsense phrases which don't mean anything (*1).

But as for favours, we use the size metaphor to mean how much effort it would take to do the favour. A small favour might be to pass me a tissue or some such. A big favour would be to drive me from Amsterdam to Warsaw.


1: I think at a push you could say "a big question" to mean one which is nearly impossible to answer, like "How can we keep the North Pole from melting so fast?", but that's not what your textbook is asking about.

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    I don’t like the implied assertion that “big” only relates to size. We can make big decisions, so why can’t we ask big questions? One could argue that “Will you marry me?” is a bigger question than, “Is it supposed to rain today?” (By the way, I get it; we don’t typically say “I have a big question to ask of you.” It’s not idiomatic. But I think our learners deserve a better, more accurate explanation than you’ve provided here.) – J.R. Aug 23 '18 at 9:23
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    A big question, I think the word "big" could refer to the difficulty of the question. Although I think it's an unusual collocation and a "hard question" would be much more common. – Dr Sitecore Aug 23 '18 at 9:28
  • @DrSitecore - I agree. I wouldn’t normally associate “big question” with a difficult question; we have hard questions, thorny questions, and even vexing questions for that. When I hear “big question,” I think of important questions about a significant issue. “Should Mary leave college so she can work full-time and support her ailing parents?” That’s a big question. (I guess that’s also a “difficult question,” but not in the same way as, say, a hard math problem.) – J.R. Aug 23 '18 at 9:39
  • @DrSitecore and J.R. Are you disagreeing with what I've written in my answer? – Wilson Aug 23 '18 at 9:50
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    I’m disagreeing with your rationale. The answer to the question should not be, “Putting question in the blank is wrong, because a question is not something that has size.” And, despite your footnote, your main answer asserts that big question and small question are "nonsense phrases which don't mean anything.” I certainly disagree with that, and so do a few others. In short, I think you’ve rightly concluded that the OP’s book is correct, but you could do a much better job of explaining why. – J.R. Aug 23 '18 at 10:02

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