A Journey into Transcription, Part 4: The Question Question

question: (NOUN) A sentence worded or expressed so as to elicit information.

Since we speak in utterances (not sentences), most forms of punctuation are omitted in this corpus of learner language; the exceptions being apostrophes, hyphens and question marks. 

This blog concerns question marks.  (Warning: there are not many jokes!)

When we started transcription, the convention seemed simple and straightforward: Question mark indicates a questionThis is easy to apply when questions are straightforward.  For example, the following question types are easy to identify:  

  • yes/no questions (do you like chocolate?);
  • wh- questions (where have you been?);
  • tag questions(rock music is popular isn’t it?);
  • either/or questions (did you catch the train or did you fly?)

However, very soon, we found ourselves in debate about whether and where to transcribe question marks in less straightforward utterances.  This enabled us to amend the convention and add illustrative examples.  In addition, transcribers created a Questions Bank and began to keep a log of decisions made regarding the transcription of question marks; this was done with the aim of achieving the consistency which we anticipate might be vital to researchers in the future. 

So here follows a reflection on some of the varied ways in which speakers can elicit a response in spoken discourse, along with remarks on whether or not a question mark is transcribed in context of this corpus.

It is useful to keep two vital rules in mind:

  • For the learner language corpus it is the structure of the utterance that is crucial rather than the expression or tone of voice. 
  • If in doubt, leave it out!

Either/Or Adjusted Question

Speaker adjusts wording and question structure remains.

  • so in Indian houses do you also have landline telephones or do they  are they disappearing?

Either/Or Anticipation Question:

Use of ‘or’ suggests a choice of alternatives is going to be presented but the questioner’s voice and pace tails off in anticipation of the listener’s response.

  • do you go to a special school? or… [no ellipsis would not be transcribed in corpus]

Doubled Up Question

Structurally, there may be two questions but only one question is actually being asked; question mark transcribed at the end.

  • is it important to do school trips do you think?

Rephrased / Clarified Question:

Multiple rephrased/related questions in quick succession; each is structurally complete, eliciting a single response.

  • in what area? in what field? do have you any idea?
  • what are you going to do when you finish at this school? what will you do next?

Wondering Question:

A question word (often ‘what’) within the utterance and transcribed with question mark.

  • it seems to me your class sizes you have what? forty five students in a class it seems to me they are very large

Question Word/Context Question:

Question word followed by context/detail; often for emphasis and expressing shock or surprise.

  • what? they have a party all day
  • when? in the middle of the night

Clarification/Qualification Question:

A question followed by qualifying phrase for emphasis or for clarification; question mark may be transcribed at the end…

  • what about education more broadly more generally?
  • would you make it more fashionable more stylish?

…or in the middle of the utterance.

  • what do you think the biggest problems are in Mumbai? the biggest pollution problems
  • is that your ambition? to design a bicycle

Interrupted (Clause) Question:

A clause inserted mid-question but structure remains and one main question is being asked.

  • what about looking at education not just at your school looking at education in general?

Implied Question:

Interrogative intonation communicates speaker’s aim to elicit information; however, in this corpus we focus solely on structure so no question mark is transcribed.

Useful test: is the utterance meaningful without interrogative intonation?  If so, no question mark is added.

S:            I thought I was late

E:            really

S:            yes I overslept


E:            and how are you today?

S:            I’m fine and you

E:            I’m fine too


E:            any questions for me about your topic

S:            yes have you ever been to New York?

Statement Question:

Again, interrogative intonation communicates speaker’s aim to elicit information but structurally there is no question in the second part of this utterance and so no question mark is transcribed.

E:            so what do you think is the answer then? you think that parents should be at home more

S:            no I think they should have the choice

Unclear Question:

Key words are unclear making question structure incomplete; no question mark is transcribed.

S:            <unclear=can you> repeat the question please

A Complex Utterance with a Question Structure:

A number of self-corrections but the structure of a question exists.

S:            and do you think it’s it’s good to be in to be in touch with many people and to and to and to con= er contact with your friends and erm and at your home for exa= on your home for example?

Interrupted Question:

If the question is interrupted no question mark is transcribed, however, sometimes a short question structure remains.

S:            is he er good enough?  to

E:            mm

S:            you know develop India and make it a superpower

Interrupted Either/Or Question:

What would originally have been a single either/or question is interrupted resulting in two independent question structures which are each transcribed with question marks.

E:            do you think it’s a skill?

S:            erm I think

E:            or can you get better at it?

So this has been a glimpse at some of the many varied ways speakers use language to elicit a response.  Time and again we chant our mantra: “If in doubt, leave it out“! 

The full version of our Questions Bank is now pretty exhaustive.  Generally we find that utterances can be mapped onto existing example structures so we can be confident that the decision as to if/where to transcribe the question mark will be consistent with previous decisions. So the Questions Bank, for us, has definitely been a valuable transcription tool.