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I have to generate random questions Yes/No about hotels, restaurants, etc. for a Natural-Language Programming task. The focus is on questions about characteristics about such places that are rather dynamic (e.g., current length of queue, available parking spaces).

I'm trying to cover a wide range of formulations so that not all questions look too much alike (e.g. Is KFC nice? Are the rooms in Hilton Hotel large?). As a non-native English speaker, I stumble upon some problems to guarantee grammatically correct questions. Given the following two example questions:

  • Does [RESTAURANT-NAME] have a promotion?
  • Is [RESTAURANT-NAME] having a promotion?

I would say that both questions convey the same meaning, with the latter maybe emphasizing the current moment (implying that promotions are rather infrequent and dynamic). Is this correct?

My follow-up question is now: When I can use both forms interchangeably? For example, when I have

  • Does [RESTAURANT-NAME] have vegan dishes?
  • Is [RESTAURANT-NAME] having vegan dishes?

The second one "feels" wrong since the menu usually doesn't change much over time. Am I correct to say that the possibility to formulate a "Is/Are... having... ?" depends on the meaning/semantics of the question? In other words, I cannot always use both formulations and I cannot trivially decide in a program?

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    In the future please make sure your title is a question, i.e. a sentence followed by a question mark. – Ricky Apr 17 '17 at 4:23
  • Hmmm, I've having difficulty pinpointing your exact problem. You need the computer to generate random questions, but (of course), you want them to be grammatically-correct and idiomatic? So really, what you're looking for is a set of rules to give the computer to help it generate grammatically-correct and idiomatic random questions? – Teacher KSHuang Apr 17 '17 at 9:26
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    If my understanding above is correct, then the "best" way would be to build a site like SE that lets users generate idiomatic sentences and someone would have to proofread for grammaticality. Then, your NLP task would spit these questions back out, but at least now, you have had native-speakers help you generate the content. – Teacher KSHuang Apr 17 '17 at 9:29
  • I see what you're saying, but as a native speaker I think "is Restaurant having ..." immediately signals non-native fluency, regardless of whatever follows. I can't think of a single example in which I'd use it, or would not be better suited by "does Restaurant have ...". – OJFord Apr 17 '17 at 18:35
  • @TeacherKSHuang Definitely grammatically correct, and idiomatic as possible. I currently support Yes/No questions of the form "Do/Does... have...?", "Is/Are there... ?", and "Is/Are... ?" (Examples: "Does Ding Heng have vegan cuisine?", "Are there empty parking spaces around Spizza Mercato at present?", "Is the queue of Pangat Indian Cuisine long right now?"). I rely on a manually created word graph / ontology to know that, for example, restaurants can have queues and that queues are rather dynamic. Now I'm looking for more formulations to generate the Yes/No question to spice it up a bit. – Christian Apr 18 '17 at 0:19
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The word have has multiple definitions. Here are two:

have verb

1 Possess, own, or hold. ‘he had a new car and a boat’

4 Perform the action indicated by the noun specified (used especially in spoken English as an alternative to a more specific verb) ‘We will be having a meeting soon to examine our options, to see what is possible.’

- ODO

Your promotion example uses definition 4 (action) whereas your vegan dishes example uses definition 1 (possession).

You ask:

Am I correct to say that the possibility to formulate a "Is/Are... having... ?" depends on the meaning/semantics of the question? In other words, I cannot always use both formulations and I cannot trivially decide in a program?

Yes. When used in the sense of possession, the is having form sounds awkward.

  • Thanks, I think I get the difference. "Is [RESTAURANT] having parking spaces" clearly doesn't make sense since it's about possession and the fact a restaurant has parking spaces or not does not usually change that frequently. But what about "Is [RESTAURANT] having empty parking spaces (right now)?" Here the progressive form seems OK since the availability can change quickly over time. But it's still referring to a possession, right? So I guess it's mainly about the dynamic. – Christian Apr 17 '17 at 6:10
  • @Christian No problem. Whether it has empty parking spaces now is still stative, I think. To me, it sounds better with the does ... have form. – Lawrence Apr 17 '17 at 10:01
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In your first example, to clearly ask whether or not the restaurant currently has a promotion, I would use the progressive tense, since (as you said) it conveys the notion that promotions are rare. The simple present tense isn't that incorrect, but it sounds more awkward.

Is [Restaurant] having a promotion?

In your second example, I would use the simple present tense, since (as you said) the dietary content of the menu (whether or not they accommodate vegans) shouldn't change with the specific dishes. Although, if you wanted to make it sound better, you might use serve instead of have.

Does [Restaurant] serve vegan dishes?

  • Thanks! So I guess picking the right formulation some common understanding about the dynamic. Shame! That's not easy to implement :). "[...] you might use serve instead of have." You're right, that's another thing I need to consider to generate "reasonably natural" questions. – Christian Apr 17 '17 at 6:19
  • +1. I'd add that, oddly enough, something like "Does [Restaurant] have a promotion right now?" is perfectly fine; the progressive aspect is only needed if nothing else rules out a "long term"-type interpretation. (Of course, "Is [Restaurant] having a promotion right now?" is perfectly fine, too.) – ruakh Apr 17 '17 at 16:29
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    This might be just me, but using the word serve is a little confusing since it's not clear whether the question is asking whether the restaurant serves vegan dishes at all or whether it serves exclusively vegan dishes. – Devsman Apr 17 '17 at 18:14
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Is the restaurant running a promotional campaign?

Because a promotional campaign has a start date and an end date.

And:

Does the restaurant serve vegan dishes?

Or:

Does the restaurant have vegan dishes on the menu?

Because normally, serving vegan dishes is not a one-time deal. It's more of a permanent thing.

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    Understood, so it boils down to having the knowledge or some expectation how dynamic the case is. Unfortunately, that makes the automated generation of questions a bit tricky. – Christian Apr 17 '17 at 6:22
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    It makes it downright impossible, sir. Language is divine. As such, it cannot be described mathematically. – Ricky Apr 17 '17 at 6:24
  • Fair enough! This is why I currently build some kind of ontology to represent that knowledge. For example, while "parking spaces" are rather static, "free parking spaces" are fairly dynamic. For my limited context, doing this manually will hopefully work out. But yes, impossible for arbitrary questions. – Christian Apr 17 '17 at 6:37
  • @Christian: Glad to be of help. Happy Easter. – Ricky Apr 17 '17 at 8:44
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Does it have is kind of general. Q:Does ****** have *******. A: Sometimes.

Is, is more to current point. Q:Is ***** having ***********. A: Not currently.

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