1

When somebody asks "Is Christmas tomorrow?" I suppose that whoever is asking thinks tomorrow is Christmas; if somebody asks "Did she say the truth?" I suppose that person thinks she didn't tell the truth; if the question is "Is the sun green?" I assume that whoever is asking sees the sun as green.

Is there a neutral way to ask a question about a fact, and avoid that whomever is listening makes implications?

  • 1
    I'd say just the opposite: Is X tomorrow? sounds incredulous, while Isn't X tomorrow sounds surprised that someone has suggested that X is not tomorrow. You could ask When is X?, which implies you're totally in the dark. As for Did she tell (not say) the truth? - you can't raise the question at all without implying some doubt of her veracity or reliability. You might ask Do we have any corroboration of her account?, but still . . . – StoneyB Mar 8 '13 at 13:32
  • To me, to sound incredulous it should be "Is Christmas tomorrow? Really?" I cannot imagine somebody saying to a friend "Do we have any corroboration of her account?" It sounds like a question asked in a specific context. – kiamlaluno Mar 8 '13 at 14:01
  • Yeah, you can't make a question like that 'neutral' without getting very specific. – StoneyB Mar 8 '13 at 14:06
  • Would it sound more neutral if the question is, for example, "Did she say the truth, or a lie?" – kiamlaluno Mar 8 '13 at 14:08
  • 2
    You may be able to ask some questions without implying anything, but in the general case you can't shed implicature from English, or indeed from any natural language. I hope you get a useful answer, but there is no fully general solution. – snailboat Mar 8 '13 at 19:11
2

I believe the (entirely unnatural) court-style of asking questions fits the bill:

Were you, or were you not at the place of crime at 9PM on 7th February?

Is it, or is it not true that tomorrow is Christmas?

Did she, or did she not say the truth?

Note you're unlikely to hear it outside a courtroom - this form is used strictly for this neutrality you're asking for, to prevent objections of the opposing side against "guiding the witness".

A way to state you really don't know either way, is to ask "if the asker knows" - it is quite neutral too but it concentrates more on the fact of unavailability of the information than on staying unbiased:

Do you know per chance if tomorrow is Christmas or not?

or more likely, lesser-known pieces of knowledge:

Do you have any clue if GCC 4.7.0 supports i8 CPU extensions yet?

Do you happen to know whether Mikhail Gorbachev is still alive or not?

(it would be weird to hear this form asking for something about everyone knows, like whether tomorrow is Christmas or not.)

  • Would giving an alternative in the question enough to sound neutral? I could ask, for example, "Is Christmas tomorrow, or the next Sunday?" or "Is Christmas tomorrow, or another day?" I guess that with the first question, I could get "neither" as answer, but I would expect the person to say exactly which day is Christmas (e.g. "it's between 14 days"). – kiamlaluno Mar 8 '13 at 14:21
  • Yes, an alternative is a certain way of removing the weight from the stated option but then it definitely - strongly - puts weight on the two options you mentioned, versus "neither" - the question implies Christmas is either tomorrow or on Sunday, and not on any other day. And this bias is much heavier than in your original. "Have you stopped beating your wife yet or not?" – SF. Mar 8 '13 at 14:32
  • @kiamlaluno (e.g. "it's between 14 days") should be (e.g. "it's within 14 days") meaning it is sometime in the next 14 days. "Between" requires two end points, dates in this case. – user485 Mar 8 '13 at 17:43
  • @user3169 I meant it is exactly between 14 days, not sometimes in the next 14 days. :) I should have used Eastern in my example; maybe it was clearer (supposing the question has been asked on Saturday). – kiamlaluno Mar 8 '13 at 17:48
  • 2
    @user3169: eh, come again? Are you seriously saying that asking your sister "Do you have any clue when Mom's arriving?" implies that your sister is clueless? (It doesn't, by the way.) – Martha Mar 8 '13 at 20:46
4

Here's a slightly neutral way to pose your questions

When is Christmas?
Is her opinion correct?
What’s the color of the sun?

1

I think most such implications come from the nature of the question.

If I ask, "Is Sally telling the truth?", the fact that I'm asking the question implies that I think she may not be. We don't normally ask if what someone says is true, normally we just assume that what people tell us is true, so if you ask, you're implying that you doubt it.

If I ask, "Is tomorrow Christmas?", I suppose that as Christmas comes only once a year, the question implies that I think it is. Though in that case, I think the implication would depend a lot on the context. Like, "Of course the office will be closed tomorrow." "Oh, is tomorrow Christmas?" In that case I'd think the person had lost track of the date, but now that he's been told that the office will be closed he is expecting a yes answer. But, "The boss said he's getting us all new computers tomorrow." "What, is tomorrow Christmas or something?" Here I'd assume the real and expected answer is no.

There are plenty of times you could ask a question like that with no implication. Like if someone asked, "Is tomorrow a company holiday?", he probably genuinely doesn't know and neither a yes nor a no would be a surprise.

In the extreme case, there are "rhetorical questions", questions that are asked with a clear implication that the questioner already knows the answer. Like, "Don't you think my new girlfriend is beautiful?", or "Are you an idiot?" In either case, the questioner has already decided on the answer. The purpose of the question is not to gain information. In the first case he expects you to express agreement with the conclusion that he has already reached. In the second he is simply insulting you, and he might just as well have said, "You are an idiot." You know that that's what he meant.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.