3

I recently answered a question on ELL. It included a sentence similar to this:

If it's neither A nor B, I assume that it's C?

I answered the question, and noted that I think that a clause beginning "I assume..." should not end with a question mark. The OP disagreed with me, and said that it was to indicate that he would use intonation to make the clause a question- to get confirmation that his assumption was correct.

My opinion is that this particular clause can't be made into a sensible question using intonation. Is this opinion reasonable?

If so, I have some theories about why this might be.

  1. You can't use intonation to make a subordinate clause of an if into a question

  2. You can only use intonation to make follow-on questions, and this sentence doesn't seem to be a follow-on question.

  3. You can only use intonation to change the main clause into a question. This ​clause contains two sub-clauses: "I assume" and "that it's C". While it's reasonable to question the that-subclause, it's not reasonable to question the "I assume" subclause. It's a fact that you are assuming something: the only doubt is over whether the assumption is correct.

It seems to me that, when you use intonation for a question, it affects the main clause only, so using intonation with this sentence asks a pointless question. The only way to ask the correct question (is my assumption correct) is by adding an auxiliary verb:

Should I assume that it's C?


This question was closed as a duplicate of this one. The accepted answer to that question provides a series of sentences, many of which are declarative questions, however the first is an example of colloquial ellipsis (the subject and verb are omitted, so you can't tell whether subject and verb would have been inverted), and the remainder are follow-on questions.

I suggested above that maybe declarative questions are valid for follow-on questions. For my sentence, that would work like this:

Person A: If it's neither A nor B, what should you do?
Person B: If it's neither A nor B, I assume that it's C?

This is from section 32 of the Oxford Guide to English Grammar (John Eastwood, 1994):

In informal conversation a question can sometimes have the same word order as in a statement. The question has a rising intonation.
The machine gives change? ~ No, it doesn't.
You're travelling tomorrow?~ Yes.
The car is blue?~ That's right.
The car is what colour? ~ Blue.
They went which way?~ That way.
We use this kind of question only when it follows on from what was said before.
I need a return ticket to Paddington. ~ You're travelling when? ~ Tomorrow.

Are there any other circumstances where declarative questions are permissible?

2
  • 1
    Declarative questions have been covered here before, and are fine, certainly in informal contexts. "It's C?" is fine; the hedged "I assume that it's C?" sounds fine in speech (and thus is syntactically fine in written-down speech). But "If it's neither A nor B ... I assume that it's C?" seems preferable to me to the original, showing a pause for reflection, an accurately recorded train of thought. There is a stretching of grammar that a dash or ellipsis bandages over. Sep 18, 2021 at 16:20
  • By asking this it seems you know the answer is affirmative… but it’s heartening to get a second opinion, so +1! Sep 21, 2021 at 1:32

1 Answer 1

1

Yes, clauses that start with "I assume" can be turned into questions by inflection.

Usage questions need to be answered by reference to usage, so here are a couple of instances in print:

Each instance is followed by a reply to the question.

The intent of the construct is, as your correspondent noted, to seek confirmation that the stated assumption is correct. There is an expectation of an affirmative answer. A negative answer would typically be surprising to the asker.

9
  • 1
    I know it's not your fault because the confusion arises in the wording of the original question, but this is all quite confusingly using the word inflection to mean the pitch intonation of a spoken phrase rather than to mean the various forms of a word resulting from applying its relevant inflectional morphology like child / children / child’s / children’s for nouns or be / being / is / am / are / was / were for verbs. :(
    – tchrist
    Sep 19, 2021 at 16:44
  • 1
    @tchrist Thanks. I thought he meant 'rising tone' because of the association with questions. But if the OP was looking at morphology, I don't see those inflections in the question - it's consistently "I assume".
    – Lawrence
    Sep 19, 2021 at 16:56
  • 2
    Yes, he's talking about the rising tone. I put links to the two different subjects as a comment for the OP.
    – tchrist
    Sep 19, 2021 at 17:02
  • 1
    FWIW, an "I assume" question ending with a rising tone is always a subset of what lawyers called "leading questions" because it will always suggest the answer in the body of the question.
    – ohwilleke
    Sep 19, 2021 at 21:28
  • 1
    My question was about making a declarative question from a subordinate clause: both of your examples are complete sentences. Your second example has demonstrated, though, that a declarative question doesn't always need to be in informal conversation, or in a follow-on question. I would say that this is more a rhetorical question than one seeking confirmation, though confirmation was given.
    – JavaLatte
    Sep 21, 2021 at 1:37

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge that you have read and understand our privacy policy and code of conduct.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.