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This is a common IELTS speaking exam question: Do you play any sports?

How do you answer that if you're a professional swimmer? In my mind 'playing sports' implies team sports (I play football, I play basketball, etc.), you don't say "I play swimming".

So, the point:

  • Do you play any sports?
  • I do/I don't...

Yes, they do expect you to answer "do you..." questions with "I do, I don't...".


Updated to clarify:

  • Merriam-Webster's definition of "play" is: to engage in sport or recreation; to engage or take part in a game . This is a very generic definition that doesn't particularly help in answering this question.
  • As I mentioned previously, the verb "play" is not normally associated with swimming (in my mind it is used with team sports).
  • "Do you play...?" implies a yes/no type of answer – "Yes, I do play..." or "No, I don't play...".

    So, how should I respond?

    • Does it limit the question to asking about team sports only, which would exclude swimming?
    • If it could include swimming, how can an answer of a matching construction be grammatically correct (the "I play swimming" issue)?
    • What would an appropriate answer for swimming look like?
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    But examiners may have their own ideas. There was a time when spelling the element sulphur sulphur would lose you a mark in some science exams in England, while spelling it sulfur would lose you a mark in some English exams in England. ELU addresses the requirements of the English language, not particular examination boards. – Edwin Ashworth Jun 3 '17 at 10:33
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    Swimming and athletics are definitely "sports", but we do not "play" them. But it is not just team games which we "play", we also "play" tennis, golf, etc. We do not "play" boxing, wrestling etc. We do "play" chess or cards. Where it is a sport which is not "played", we "participate" or "take part" in it, or we "compete" at it. . – WS2 Jun 3 '17 at 10:48
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    I think I'd be more or less equally likely to say, “No, but I swim” and “Yes, I swim” in reply to such a question. Play? No. Sports? Yes. Take your pick which one you want to be the most important and govern which interjection to use. @fixer1234 Just looking up sports in a dictionary doesn't really do anything to answer the question. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jun 3 '17 at 13:07
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    @fixer1234 To a certain extent I agree; but then again, if the question had been “Do you do any sports?”, there is no doubt that I would only consider “Yes, I swim” a viable answer. While play is fairly likely to be intended generically, its meaning isn't really generic, and “No, but I swim” is a perfectly natural answer as well, taking the act of playing, rather than the notion of sports, as the main part of the question. It's like “Do you cook?”, where both “Yes, but only instant meals” and “No, only instant meals” are possible and likely answers. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jun 3 '17 at 19:57
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    The question is probably Do you DO any sports/ but if the examiner does say "play", you can answer: *"I don't play any team sports as such but I do go swimming. I've competed in several competitions since I was a teenager and I have even won a few medals in my time." (You don't have to tell the truth. You can be creative, what the examiner cares about is your vocabulary and grammar. It's not an FBI interrogation!) You should not give "yes" or "no" answers, it's a speaking exam. Go and watch some IELTS videos on youtube, to give you an idea. – Mari-Lou A Jun 4 '17 at 20:12
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Your question isn't immediately obvious to a native speaker because of how a native speaker would intend that sentence. I didn't even catch the nuance until it was pointed out in the comments on the question.

Individual Sports

The word "sport" can describe virtually any physical activity engaged in for pleasure or recreation (see M-W). It can be a solo activity, a group activity, or a team activity, and it may or may not be a competitive activity.

There are many words that describe involvement in various sports, such as "play", "participate", "practice", "compete", "take part", etc. Idiomatically, different "involvement" words are associated with different sports. So if you ask someone whether they are involved in a specific sport, you would use one of the involvement words associated with that sport.

Do you play hockey?
Do you practice swimming?
Do you participate in pole vaulting?
Do you go deep sea fishing?

Note that some sports don't even require an involvement word: "Do you swim?", "Do you pole vault?"

Sports Generically

The different involvement words vary as to how generic they are. I can't think of one that goes well with all sports (with the exception of the totally generic "do", as suggested in comments). They all (except for "do"), have a nuance, such as whether they are typically applied to an individual or group activity, a competitive activity, etc.

So when someone asks generically whether you are involved with any sports, the involvement word tends to be used generically. People simply pick almost any one of the involvement words to ask the question, with the word choice perhaps subconsciously triggered by a sport that happens to pop into their mind when they ask the question.

Even though "do" is generic and might be the "best" word to use for this question, it doesn't necessarily come to mind because many other words are more closely associated with sports. When you refer to involvement in a particular sport, "do" wouldn't be as commonly used a term as one associated with the sport.

Question Intent and Meaning

At least in conversation, the choice of involvement word is not meant to exclude sports with which that word is not normally associated when referring to a specific sport. So "do you play any sports" is not intended to ask:

Are you involved in any of the sports with which the word "play" is associated?

It means:

Do you engage in any physical activity for recreation?

A question like "Do you play any sports?" is, by nature, generic because the key words have different meanings to different people. As discussed in the comments, there is not unanimous agreement on what is and isn't a sport. And each involvement word carries different connotations to different people as to what sport-related characteristics define its usage.

So the person asking the question recognizes that the question can be interpreted many different ways. When asked in such an ambiguous way, the objective is not a precisely targeted answer. The asker doesn't intend the question to be parsed as to the precise meaning of the involvement word or the term "sports". And they don't expect a response of "well, that depends on what you define as a sport and what you mean by "play."

These kinds of open-ended questions are intended as conversation starters. The person isn't looking for a simple yes or no answer. The typical response would at least mention the sport or sports the person engages in, and might include more information or lead to a discussion about it.

Customary Response

In your example, the response to "Do you play any sports?" would typically be at least, "Yes, I swim", and might go on to include more description.

Note that the involvement word used in the question is a generic placeholder for the concept of involvement. When responding with a specific sport, you would use an involvement word appropriate to that sport rather than repeating the one in the question. So the response to "Do you play any sports?" could be:

Yes, I practice swimming.
Yes, I participate in pole vaulting.
Yes, I go deep sea fishing.

Ambiguity

That said, someone unfamiliar with the idiomatic usage could interpret "play" more literally, or perhaps try to second guess the asker's intended meaning (maybe the asker doesn't consider certain activities sports).

Keep in mind that this is not a question in a "legal" setting, where you are swearing to your response under oath and an imprecise answer could put you in jeopardy. Also, an imprecise answer would not offend the asker. In fact, if the asker hadn't thought of swimming as a sport, your interpreting it that way might well lead to a conversation about it, which is typically the intent of such a question.

But because the usual generic usage of terms is ambiguous, either yes or no could technically be a correct answer; "yes, I swim" or "no, but I swim" would both be legitimate. The asker could also read into either one your own perspective on whether you consider swimming a sport. This is a little like, "yes, we have no bananas"; ambiguous usage can technically be answered multiple ways and native speakers are familiar with the common usage and intent.

Caveat

Your question asks this in the context of an IELTS exam question rather than conversational usage. I'm not familiar with the exam and have no idea whether such a question is asking about normal conversational usage or literal nuances in word meaning.

  • Yes, as you put it: "These kinds of open-ended questions are intended as conversation starters. The person isn't looking for a simple yes or no answer." I think a yes or no question would in fact be a little rude... it is clearly an inquiry about how a person is associated with sports. Even a "no" would expect some slight reasonable explanation why they chose not to. "No I don't. I'm too busy" or "No I don't. It never interested me" or "No I don't, but I dance ballet which is as strenuous as a sport". etc. – Tom22 Jun 4 '17 at 1:53
  • I suggest that you read up on IELTS speaking exam. The cited example is in ice-breaker, the examiner doesn't expect a treatise or want to hear the candidate talk for five minutes about something so simple. The more complex and thought provoking questions arrive later. Examiners are also human, they are usually teachers who want to hear candidates do well. They are not grammarian warlords. – Mari-Lou A Jun 5 '17 at 7:07
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    Do you play hockey? Sure. As for swimming and pole vaulting, I'm more likely to use those as verbs. In other words: Do you swim? Do you pole vault? (no "practice" or "participate in" necessary). – J.R. Jun 5 '17 at 14:36
  • @Mari-LouA, the intent of the answer wasn't a textbook of information that the OP would parrot back or expound upon in an exam. I was only trying to explain the context of conversational usage. The OP's post was about how to interpret and respond to this kind of question, and the confusion was basically interpreting the context too literally. I was trying to help the OP understand it. (cont'd) – fixer1234 Jun 6 '17 at 3:36
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    I'm not really qualified to address anything about the exam. But it looks like you're pretty familiar with it. Neither existing answer addresses the context or expectations of the exam, which is the actual focus of the question. Consider posting an answer so we have one that actually focuses on the exam. – fixer1234 Jun 6 '17 at 3:37
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"Do you play any sports?"
"Yes, I swim competitively."

This is perfectly good English. You can find plenty of examples of it published in books here. With the generic term sports, we use play as a generic verb, but we don't say play as the verb for many specific sports. For example, you don't "play bowling" or "play swimming", you just "bowl" or "swim".

Another example of the same phenomenon in English is that to cook food, in its primary sense, means to prepare food by exposing it to intense heat, but we also use the verb cook generically for preparing dishes, even though not all foods are prepared with exposure to heat and some specific foods don't take the verb cook:

"Charlie Brown, what kinds of foods do you know how to cook?"
"Not many. Just toast and jello."

That's fine, even though one doesn't "cook toast", one "toasts bread" or "makes toast", and jello is prepared by chilling, not by cooking. Given the wide variety of verbs for specific sports and for preparing specific foods, it's impractical to list all the possible specific verbs for every known form of sport or food when you want to speak generically. Instead, you "round off" and just use the most common specific verb.

Of course, some people will be jerks about it. Some people enjoy calling upon a kind of streamlined rigor that English doesn't have and that is unrealistic to demand:

"Nuh UH! Swimming is a sport, but I don't play swimming! I participate in swimming [said with supercilious condescension]. By the Liskov substitution principle, one should be able to apply the same verb to each of a noun's hyponyms [the esoteric term 'hyponyms' said particularly pungently], which is demonstrably not true in all cases with regard to 'sports'." [This type loves to hold things to the standard of "true in all cases", since that makes it easy to find almost anything lacking.]

Sadly, examinations are sometimes conducted on the assumption that English works so rigidly, because that makes grading easier. As for the IELTS, I have no idea.

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    I suggest that you read up on IELTS speaking exam. The cited example is in ice-breaker, the examiner doesn't expect a treatise or want to hear the candidate talk for five minutes about something so simple. The more complex and thought provoking questions arrive later. Examiners are also human, they are usually teachers who want candidates do well. IOW they're not persnickety grammarians. – Mari-Lou A Jun 5 '17 at 7:08
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    I'm objecting to the last sentence, which sounds sarcastic and fails to take into account that the speaking grade is a global one. In the IELTS speaking exam, the marking is not as rigid as you seem to infer there's a fair amount of flexibility. Obviously, some examiners are more lenient than others, but they are vetted annually, and retrained every year. – Mari-Lou A Jun 5 '17 at 7:19
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    @Mari-Lou A I hope you will edit your comment on the IELTS exam into an answer, because it addresses what I think is a big part of the OP's question: what is the right answer for this exam? Many of us have encountered exams in which knowing how the examiners think is almost as important as knowing the material. If you decide to write an answer, ping me and I will upvote. – ab2 Jun 5 '17 at 23:44
  • @ab2 Is telling someone how to play the IELTS exam on-topic on EL&U? I thought that kind of answer belonged on ELL. No? – Ben Kovitz Jun 7 '17 at 19:45
  • @Ben Kovitz I don't know whether it is on topic on ELL, but it sure would be more on topic there than here -- but seeing as how the Q is here now and looks like staying here, I don't see a problem with Mari-Lou turning her comment into an answer. Comments can vanish overnight, and I think Mari-Lou's comment is useful. – ab2 Jun 7 '17 at 19:53
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Which sports (and games; the distinction is another question) work well with play is an interesting question, lacking a simple rule as an answer. Such sports tend to be characterised by:

  • equipment such as a ball, in particular equipment that leaves the player's immediate possession.
  • a winner, at least conceptually. A casual version of a well-defined sport may not bother with this.
  • a points-based scoring system as opposed to one based on time or distance. This could be a binary system (first/last/only player to do something).
  • the name of the sport isn't a verb in its own right (compare darts and bowling, but note golf is an exception)

There are exceptions to all of these (heptathlon has points and thrown objects, but isn't played); they're only meant as guidance. Any correlation with a team is weak at best (rowing and relay races are examples of team sports with winners and even equipment that aren't played).

But returning to your question, the intent of the question doesn't necessarily match the words that precisely. If asked "do you do any sports?" I might answer "I cycle, swim and kayak, nothing competitive." If asked "do you play any sports?" my answer might be "nothing competitive but I cycle, swim and kayak," or it might be "not really, but I do cycle, swim and kayak." I might also mention that I've been known to play badminton, but that perhaps suggests more about my willingness to keep answering.

If you want to answer the question as stated with "I do..." or "I don't..." and refer to swimming, my own approach (as a native speaker of British English) would be "I do swim, but I don't play anything competitive," though the structure of this response seems a bit artificial (even just "swimming" would be more natural. If this was directly testing your comprehension of the question it would be cruel - a trick question - but I understand from the comments that it's more an attempt to get you to talk about something familiar.

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Yes of course! The Olympics Games is certainly a sports competition, and swimming is undoubtedly one of the items! So why not it isn't a sport?

  • The OP isn't asking if swimming is a sport, they're saying would it be correct to reply ‘swimming’ if the question is about "playing sports". – Mari-Lou A Mar 22 '18 at 20:18

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