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There, I did it myself. Instead of asking "Why are some questions written in this funny way?", I produced what strikes me as bad English ever so often: Questions that are formed by starting out with "Why" (or other interrogative words), followed by what seems to be a normal subject-verb-object sentence. A few examples are quickly drawn from some other SE sites (missing question marks included), but this seems to be quite common all across the board:

  • “Why we need SELinux?”
  • “Why ATM and MPLS are at level 2.5”
  • “Why Turn Collate Off”
  • “Why BitTorrent uploads simultaneously?”
  • “Why the letters in keyboards are arranged like this?”

I do have the impression that the actual article beneath such a question is often written in quite good English, so the writer is not necessarily a beginner of the language.

Therefore my question, mainly aimed at the native speakers of English: Is this considered to be good style? Or do you find it sloppy? What's your impression when you read such a construct?

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The question marks aren't missing. These aren't questions. –  KitFox Feb 29 '12 at 19:44
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They aren't declarative, either. –  cornbread ninja 麵包忍者 Feb 29 '12 at 19:46
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I just want to point out that, especially in headlines or titles, "Why blah blah" is usually a short form for "This article will explain why you should blah blah" or "... by blah blah is happening" etc. So, not questions. –  Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Feb 29 '12 at 20:32
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I know that in Asian languages like Chinese, the questions are formatted this way. –  Bidella Feb 29 '12 at 23:59
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This reminds me of a South Asian fellow I used to know that always insisted that, being a native English speaker, I lacked the formal training to understand that the proper way to greet someone is: "How it is going?" –  Joel Brown Mar 2 '12 at 1:19
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3 Answers

up vote 11 down vote accepted

My impression is that the phrase was written by a non-native speaker of English, who does not know how to construct questions. (How often that impression is accurate I don’t know.) All of the examples you offer are noun phrases. For example, “why we need SELinux” might serve on its own (sans question mark) as a headline, or as part of a complete sentence:

  • Tell me why we need SELinux.
  • Why we need SELinux is…

But the terms may not stand on their own. English questions use inversion of word order and auxiliary verbs; noun phrases involving question words do not:

  1. *Why Paul went to the concert?
  2. Why did Paul go to the concert?
  3. Paul went to the concert.

The people writing these question titles are using (1) when they should be using (2), because it more closely mirrors the structure in the declarative version, (3).

Now, “Why turn ‘collate’ off?” is incidentally valid. It poses a rhetorical question using the bare form of the verb (in this case turn), asking essentially “why would you ever bother turning the ‘collate’ function off?”—why here is standing for why ever. Common examples:

  • Why bother?
  • Why wait?
  • Why waste your time?
  • Why not?
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The point is: All of the examples I gave do stand on their own. Just like my question in this post. Looks sloppy, no? –  doppelfish Feb 29 '12 at 20:35
    
@doppelfish: I think you're just not getting it. With the exception of "Why turn ‘collate’ off?" (which as Jon explains, is a valid question - just not the one you think) none of your other examples "stand on their own". They're either clipped "newspaper-style" headings, or malformations from non-native speakers. As Kitfox says in the very first comment, they aren't questions. –  FumbleFingers Mar 1 '12 at 2:32
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The style of these titles is that of an indirect question. What is missing here is an introductory phrase, such as "Now we're going to discuss why we need..." and it looks like the introductory phrase has been left out. Some introductory phrases are direct questions, such as "Do you know why we need...?", so when you leave them out what remains is the indirect question with a question mark which belongs to a phrase omitted. Personally, I believe that the latter is not nice stylistically. But when there is no question mark at the end, titles of this style don't strike me as odd.

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+1 I think you have a point here: it could be that some of those examples were meant to be elliptic statements of the type "chapter 1: on why plants grow towards the light". It's hard to say without context. –  Cerberus Feb 29 '12 at 20:52
    
Well, there is no context. Just like I (intentionally) wrote "Why some questions are written in this funny way?", the other examples appear on other SE sites, and similar "questions" are used on other internet forums and the like. Why questions are written that way I haven't yet found out, hence this question. ;) –  doppelfish Feb 29 '12 at 21:17
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“Why ATM and MPLS are at level 2.5” and “Why Turn Collate Off” are perfectly grammatical titles (the second fragment is even title-cased). They are not questions, and do not pretend to be questions.

“Why we need SELinux” and “Why BitTorrent uploads simultaneously” would be perfectly grammatical titles; they are marred by a spurious question mark. I suspect the presence of the question mark has something to do with the context: they are titles of questions on Stack Exchange, and the environment provides contradictory clues — when you type a title, the label next to the box is “Title”, but the guide that appears inside the box is “what's your [topic] question? be specific.” The pressure to write something that is both a title and a question often results in a title that's superficially made more question-like with the addition of a question mark.

I don't like “Why the letters in keyboards are arranged like this?” with or without the question mark. I'd prefer “Reason for the arrangement of letters on keyboards” or “Why the letters on keyboards arranged the way they are” or “Why QWERTY…”.

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