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>> Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Forming questions in English is especially difficult for many speakers of European languages because they have very little experience of forming questions in their own language.
In saying this I don't mean to suggest that Europeans lack a sense of curiosity and never ask any questions; certainly not. I mean that in the Romance languages of Europe it is hardly necessary to form a question at all because questions can be formed simply by inflection, which means the modulation or intonation or pitch of the voice.

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And that means, in the present context, changing the meaning of what you say by changing the way you say it. Speakers of European languages normally do this by making the voice rise to a higher level at the end of the sentence. It's the ability to vary the pitch and emphasis of the voice that can make speakers of other languages a little lazy about constructing a question in English. You can't use inflection of the voice in English as a regular method: the structure of a question, the correct order of the words, is extremely important. In my opinion, the ability to ask a question properly is one of the hallmarks of a fluent English speaker. affirmative: a) I can say this in English.
question: b) I can say this in English? (with inflection)
instead of the correct, c) Can I say this in English?
If you use method b) people will easily understand you but they will simply think that you don't know or speak much English. We just don't use inflection very often in regular English. When we use inflection of the voice in English we are usually indicating doubt or disbelief. Affirmative: 'I ate four horses for breakfast.'
You are surely entitled to disbelieve this sentence, so you say,
'You ate four horses for breakfast?' quite correctly, and probably in a voice rising higher and higher.
And a question formed by inflection in English can be offensive. Consider this -
Affirmative: 'You're a doctor.' No problem.
But 'You're a doctor?' Using inflection in this context implies doubt or irony, which may not be what you want to communicate.
The correct way to form questions in English is complicated but not difficult. I have reduced the process to two key points. With a little practice you'll be able to form questions with the skill of a British barrister.

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