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As a teacher of ESL to children, I teach the importance of finding/adding both the subject and verb, in their native language, before translating to English. I've come across a grammar construct which I don't fully understand myself, so teaching it to others is even more problematic.

Given the following constructs:

A: "I'd like some coffee. What about you?"

or

A: "Michael is ill."

B: "What about the doctor?"

how would one explain the subject and verb in the "What about...?" clause? Is it even a clause or rather a phrase?

  • An undeniably grammatical paraphrase of the first example is "I'd like some coffee. Are you in the same position?" (Of course, this would rarely be used as it is far clunkier.) The far more normal-sounding variant you give is totally acceptable in conversation (and better by far). 'What about you?' conveys a clear request and even without a verb does its job well. It is a sentence fragment/substitute. These have been covered before on ELU. – Edwin Ashworth May 6 '17 at 7:25
  • @Chaim The examples are copied directly from the text book I'm using. I always guessed the "what about the doctor?" to imply something along the lines of "What does the doctor think/say about him (Michael)?". That's mainly due to the response being "The doctor is busy.". I thought the term after 'about' was the subject, well that's how I've been teaching it. I never thought it could in fact be the object, as in your comment. – Twifty Jun 19 '17 at 20:23
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The grammatical rules for interrogative sentences are different from the rules that apply to simple declarative sentences. The Wikipedia entry for Interrogative gives examples from several languages.

The article distinguishes between polar questions that can be answered yes or no, and non-polar questions, where the questioner is asking for information, but leaves it to the listener to choose its form.

The form that questions take in a language is related to the social standing of the questioner and the responder, and the degree of politeness or deference that must be expressed, especially if the questioner is of lower rank. For example, the Japanese examples in the Wikipedia article are given in one of the polite forms. English has this too, e.g. when we ask or hint with expressions like do you think we should..., perhaps it would be better if... and so on.

The implicit question in most of these indirect cases is typically What do you think about X?, where X can be getting coffee, calling a doctor, and so on. The term what about is a particle. It forms a question out of the word or term that follows. It's a construction that exists in many languages.

In this case, the implicit subject is you. The implicit verb is think and the implicit object is the interrogative pronoun what. The expression about X modifies the verb think, so I suppose you could refer to it as an adverbial phrase. Note that "What about Starbucks?" would be just as logical as "What about you?", but it expresses something slightly different about the power of decision that the questioner is imputing to other party.

For children in ESL, how you explain the construction depends on the language they are coming from, and how questions are formed in their first languages. You may be closer to an answer than you think.

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I was taught, in elementary school, to find the subject in a question by rearranging the words to make the question sound more like a statement:

Q: "What colour is your new car?" (Canadian spelling "colour") S: "Your new car is what colour." [S = car]

Q: "What about you?" S: "You (are) about what?" (meaning, "What would you like?") [S = You] (the verb "are" is "understood/implied").

In colloquial/casual English, subjects and verbs are often "understood/implied."

  • Welcome to English.SE! If you haven't already, check out the tour and [help centre](english.stackexchange.com/help) By the way, here's a few tips to help you out - Your first statement should have a question mark after it, since it's still a question: 'your new car is what colour**?**'. Also, you don't need to justify your spelling of 'colour'! (it's the same in BrE) To make it easier to read, we tend to use the > character by quotations. (e.g. your example questions) – marcellothearcane Jun 19 '17 at 16:44
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The first question "What about you?" means "What [could one say] about you?" or "What [is the truth] about you?" The second question is less clear. Without context it seems silly to ask whether the doctor is ill; maybe the question is "What [would you say] about [calling] the doctor?"

Are you asking whether the terms "clause" or "phrase" are properly extended to thoughts expressed so incompletely?

Twifty responded: The examples are copied directly from the text book I'm using. I always guessed the "what about the doctor?" to imply something along the lines of "What does the doctor think/say about him (Michael)?". That's mainly due to the response being "The doctor is busy.". I thought the term after 'about' was the subject, well that's how I've been teaching it. I never thought it could in fact be the object, as in your comment.

I've never taught ESL, so any advice I give is from a novice to an expert.

But these original English expressions are sentence fragments, and I think that they are too elliptical to allow the identification of a grammatical subject and verb.

So I would say that if you feel sure of what the English words mean, you should express that meaning in grammatical sentences in the new language; and if you don't know what the English words mean, you would seem to be in the same difficult position as with any other effort to translate words that you don't understand.

We have different guesses about the meaning of the second question -- What would you say about calling the doctor? vs. What does the doctor say about Michael? -- but someone might respond to either one by observing that the doctor is busy. In any case, I think that you are in the usual position of a translator, trying to express the meaning clearly and, in some cases, trying to preserve the ambiguity of the original expressions.

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Verbless sentence: Refers to some grammatical descriptions for a construction that do not have a verb but consisting of grammatical units that function as subject, object, etc. Sample this:

  1. Elliptical answers: Who took his car?—John; Where did they go?—Night club.
  2. Questions: What about another person?; Why no office today?
  3. Commands: Out!, everybody!
  4. Idiomatic usage: The lesser, the more.

Check out more at: https://www.thoughtco.com/in-defense-of-verbless-sentences-1691835

  • Those examples are not exactly verbless, the verb is silent and implied. Who took the car? -- John did; Where did they go, they went to the nightclub; Out! === you get/go out! Your number (2) sample, is the whole point of my question, and Idioms are a whole other category. The article you linked to merely states that creative writing doesn't always follow the rules of grammar, and not something I intend to promote to those attempting to pass IELTS. – Twifty May 30 '17 at 14:35
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English, as other languages, does not always require a subject and a verb in a sentence. Just because English requires a subject and a verb in a sentence more often than some other language doesn't mean English requires them all the time. So it's inherently wrong to assume and even teach that any English sentence, no matter how idiomatic, should be able to be rephrased to have both a subject and a verb.

The answer to your question, therefore, should be this:

Stop looking for a verb in the "What about...?" construction and simply accept and teach the fact that English can have a construction without a verb or a subject or both.

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