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A Word, Please: What, exactly, is a declarative question?

Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett speaks at Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing.
Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett speaks during her Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington on Oct. 13. June Casagrande writes there is a legitimate grammatical basis for using “declarative questions” to get answers from Supreme Court nominees.
(Rod Lamkey/Pool via AP)

Simple, declarative questions — that’s the best way to get answers from a Supreme Court nominee, a news commentator insisted recently. Just ask declarative questions.

I scoffed and filed the term in the corner of my mind home to “jumbo shrimp” and “military intelligence.” An oxymoron. A contradiction in terms. Nonsense.

But now, after doing a little research, I know better. “Declarative question” is neither nonsensical nor a contradiction in terms. Instead, it’s a mashup of two basic concepts: declarative and interrogative sentences.

All sentences come in one of four forms: declarative, interrogative, imperative or exclamatory.

A declarative sentence is a simple statement: You eat gluten.

An interrogative sentence is a question: Do you eat gluten?

An imperative sentence is a command: Eat gluten!

An exclamatory sentence is an exclamation: Gluten! Exclamatory sentences are oddballs because they needn’t meet the usual criteria to qualify as a sentence. A complete sentence normally contains both a subject and a verb. But an exclamatory sentence need not. It can be a single word or multiple words that don’t contain both a subject and a verb: What a beautiful day!

Declarative, interrogative, imperative and exclamatory aren’t just labels. They’re not just fancy words for statements, questions, commands and exclamations. Instead, these concepts are useful for understanding the grammar.

A declarative sentence doesn’t just state something. It does so by following a specific syntax that dictates the arrangement of the words. The simplest form for a declarative sentence is just a subject plus an intransitive verb (a verb that doesn’t take an object): Betty sang.

A slightly more complex declarative sentence would use a transitive verb (which does take an object): Betty sang the national anthem.

Declarative sentences can contain more than one clause, as well: Betty sang the national anthem and Jimmy played drums. It doesn’t matter how the clauses are joined, whether they’re coordinated with a coordinating conjunction like “and” or whether one of the clauses is subordinated with a subordinating conjunction like “while”: Betty sang the national anthem while Jimmy played drums.

Obviously, declarative sentences can be much more complex: Betty sang the national anthem while Jimmy played drums using the drumsticks his father gave him for his ninth birthday in lieu of the dirtbike Jimmy had begged for repeatedly. But these are all declarative sentences. They all state something.

Interrogative sentences in English are fascinating. Sometimes they follow a formula common in other languages that turn a statement into a question by swapping positions of the subject and verb: The statement “You are serious” becomes a question when you invert the subject and verb: Are you serious?

But you can’t always do that in English. That is, you don’t normally form a question out of “Clem slept” by asking “Slept Clem?” Instead, we often use “do” or some form of it, which functions as something called a “dummy operator.”

Did Clem sleep? Do Clem’s kids sleep? Does Clem’s wife sleep? But the inversion process works for past tense forms that use an auxiliary, for example “have” in “You have eaten dinner,” which we can invert to ask, “Have you eaten dinner?” Still other times interrogatives are formed using question words like “when” and “why.” When did Clem sleep? These are all interrogatives.

Imperatives — commands like “Eat!” — may not look like complete sentences, but they are. That’s because in the syntax of an imperative, the subject is implied: “Eat!” means, literally, “(You) eat!”

So now that we know declaratives are statements and interrogatives are questions, we can ask: What, exactly, is a declarative question? You may have already guessed the answer. A declarative question is a statement made into a question by adding a question mark at the end.

Ben likes cheese. Ben likes cheese?

You’re serious. You’re serious?

You parked in the back. You parked in the back?

So, declarative questions are legit? Yes, declarative questions are legit.

The writer is the author of “The Joy of Syntax: A Simple Guide to All the Grammar You Know You Should Know.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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