Final essay a contrasting analysis of pragmatic functions of interrogative sentences in english and vietnamese

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University Of Education

English Department

Class 4A08

Course: English – Vietnamese Comparative Linguistics 2011

Final essay


Student: Lương Thị Việt Hà

Instructor: Nguyễn Ngọc Vũ Ph.D

Lê Nguyễn Như Anh

Bùi Nguyễn Khánh



Lương Thị Việt Hà

Class: 4B08

University of Education


Nowadays, learning foreign language becomes more and more important because of the globalization. There are many different reasons for a person to learn a language. His motivation may be his favorite, job requirement, or a desire to explore a new culture. Whatever his motivations are, he must make endeavour to overcome difficulties and reach to his final target because everyone knows that learning a new language is not easy. It is a very long and challenging process. When we learn a new language, it will not be adequate if we just learn by heart grammar rules and vocabulary items as much as possible. We not only have to practice many language skills, but more importantly we should also have knowledge of the pragmatic functions of the target language for sucessful communication. Talking about language functions, we mention the reason why we use a language. At its most basic, the function of language is communication; we use language to give and receive messages between ourselves. Obviously, a native speaker can easily interpret the actual meaning of what these messages are. However, a foreign language learner may find them difficult to recognize the intentions of speakers, especially when they are implied. In fact, language functions are based much on the social contexts of a particular culture. Therefore it is more challenging for a learner to improve his language competence when the cultural gaps cause many difficulties in learning process. As a result, interrogative is the type of sentence which has various functions, particularly in English and Vietnamese. Some of them are similar and some are totally different in the two languages. The aim of this paper is first to examine the functions of interrogative sentences in pragmatic level of English and Vietnamese. From a contrastive analysis view, I find out some similarities and differences about pragmatic functions of interrogative between English and Vietnamese. I will then suggest some teaching implications with the hope of improving the effect of teaching, learning English or Vietnamese.

Literature review

In any language, when communicating with interrogative structure, listeners must know what speakers' intentions are. Understanding others' intentions is crucial for the successful interaction. Interrogative sentences are generally used to perform speech acts of directly asking a question but they are also used to convey such speech acts indirectly, such as making requests, invitations or greetings...

According to Paltridge (2000), we often (but not always) use a question or interrogative form to find something out. We can infer from the statement that interrogative is used not only to seek information but also to perform other purposes as well. Paltridge also says: “an interrogative might be used to elicit information. There are, however, many occasions when this is not the case.” This means that an interrogative is not always used for asking for information. Indeed, there is a variety of cases where interrogative can be used for special functions mentioned above.

According to Cao Xuân Hạo (1991), a Vietnamese linguist, beside the seeking-information function, interrogative utterances may also have one or more other special functions (negative, assertiveness, threatening, etc) and in many cases, these special functions are the only use or reason of a question.

From these two points of view, we can see that in both Vietnamese and English, interrogative sentences serve not only the function of seeking-information, but also many other specific functions in daily communication. However, because of many differences in culture as well as in language system, these functions existing in the two languages are not similar to each other. This causes many difficulties for language learners to interpret the actual purpose of the questions. As a result, it is important to draw language learners’ attention to the functions of questions.

Functions of interrogative sentences

One basis for classifying questions is in terms of the intentions of their speakers (Fillmore, 1986). Before uttering a question, contextual and pragmatic information has been presented in the speaker's mind. Interrogative functions, according to speakers' intentions, can be classified in many different ways, but in the present study I restrict myself to these types of situation:

  • Seeking-information questions

  • Rhetorical questions

  • Examination questions

  • Tag questions (just existing in English)

  • Questions with other special functions

    • Greetings

    • Requests (invitation, suggestion, …)

    • Threatening

Intentions are identified through the speech context as well as the speakers' attitude towards what is said. Therefore, I take into considerarion how an interrogative is said, by whom and in which context. I will first give the analysis of the functions in English and then explore how Vietnamese express these same functions through interrogative.

1. Seeking-information questions

The first thing we think of when talking about the purpose and function of a question is that it is the means of requesting information. The main motivation of seeking-information questions is a desire for knowledge; the speaker wants to know something and assumes that the hearer knows it. For example:

  • What do you know about him?

This question could be asked when the speaker wants to find some information about a man which he or she still does not know. And the speaker also thinks that the listener knows that information.

The function of seeking information of questions exists in every language because this is the original role of interrogative sentences. In Vietnamese, this function exists in the type of question called “câu hỏi chính danh” (Cao Xuân Hạo, 1991). Then, according to Lê Đông (1996), “câu hỏi chính danh” is the type of interrogative structure in the context:

    1. The speaker does not know the answer.

    2. He wants to know the answer and finds that information from the listeners.

e.g. At the beginning of a lesson, a teacher asks the class monitor:

“Hôm nay ai vắng học?”

In this context, the teacher wants to check attendance and he still does not know who is absent, so he wants to find the answer from the class monitor. In English, we can use many question forms for this function:

  • Yes/No question: Did your brother study English?

  • Wh-question: Who came here yesterday?

  • Alternative question: Will the meeting start at five or at six?

In Vietnamese, we also use different kinds of interrogative forms to serve this pragmatic function:

Alternative questions (câu hỏi lựa chọn) with structures “là/hay là”, “Có…không”, “phải không”,… e.g. Ta nên học tiếng Anh hay tiếng Pháp?

Non-alternative Questions (câu hỏi không lựa chọn) with interrogative words or phrases like ai, gì, nào, đâu, sao, bao giờ, lúc nào, như thế nào, làm sao…

e.g. Bao giờ anh tốt nghiệp đại học?

(Lê Quang Thiêm, 2004, pp 223-225)

In short, this function of questions is quite similar in Vietnamese, English or in any other language because this is the basic function of the interrogative sentences.

2. Rhetorical questions

According to Gideon (2011), a rhetorical question is a figure of speech in the form of a question posed for its persuasive effect without the expectation of a reply. Questions of this category are those that don't seek answers because the answers are already clear to both the speaker and the listener. For examples, when a speaker states: "How much longer must our people endure this injustice?", no formal answer is expected because it is implied that this injustice will last for a long time.

It is obvious that rhetorical questions have a variety of functions. In this paper, I just focus on some of the main functions of them. First of all, in contrast to the information-seeking questions, there are rhetorical questions which are intended to provide information.

e.g. Do you know that it is 12.30 now?

This question might be asked in the case that the speaker wants to inform the hearer of the time. That means the function of this question is to give the information to the hearer. It is different from the common use of question, which is asking for unknown information. The speaker’s attitude when applying this function is sometimes critical, although it is not always the case. This function exists in both Vietnamese and English. In English, we often use the structure “do-you-know” in the example given above consists in capturing the interest of the hearer. The intention of the speaker is to give emphasis to some particular point. It is used similarly in Vietnamese with the phrases “có biết… không?”

e.g. A mother says to her son: “Con có biết là ngày mai thi rồi không?”

In this example, the mother wants to emphasize on the time of the examination. We can see clearly that she complains that her son does not prepare for the exam and she has to remind him of it.

Secondly, a rhetorical question could give the emphatic prominence and get a universally valid touch or stir an emotional reaction

e.g. “What could be more wonderful than the Earth?”

People all know that the Earth is so wonderful for living creatures. This sentence makes a deeper impression on the beauty and the importance of our Earth. This might be the most important use of rhetorical questions in English as well as in Vietnamese, especially in literature. Let’s look at an extract of the poem “The Field Of Wonder” written by Hilda Conkling (1920) which has the same emotional effect of praising the beauty:

What could be more wonderful

Than the place where I walk sometimes?

Swaying like trees in rain . . .

Swaying like trees in sunshine

When breezes stir nothing but happiness . . .

What could be more lovely?...”

Or in the poem “Nhớ rừng” of Vietnamese poet Thế Lữ, a list of rhetorical questions is used to emphasize the tragedy of people who are deprived from freedom and the regret of a mighty, powerful past.

Nào đâu những đêm vàng bên bờ suối,

Ta say mồi đứng uống ánh trăng tan?

Đâu những ngày mưa chuyển bốn phương ngàn

Ta lặng ngắm giang san ta đổi mới?

Đâu những bình minh cây xanh nắng gội

Tiếng chim ca giấc ngủ ta tưng bừng?

Đâu những chiều lênh láng máu sau rừng

Ta đợi chết mảnh mặt trời gay gắt

Để ta chiếm lấy riêng phần bí mật?

Than ôi! thời oanh liệt nay còn đâu?

Thirdly, rhetorical questions express wonder in an exclamative way or an assertion

e.g. “Isn't she pretty?” implies that “She isn’t pretty at all.”

(Schmidt.Radefeldt, 1977)

In English, this particular use of rhetorical questions can be expressed by these forms:

  • Yes/no question: “Did John ever help?” implies “John never helped.”

  • Wh-question: “What has John ever done to help?” implies “John has done nothing to help.”

These rhetorical questions show a negative, irony attitude of the speakers. In Vietnamese, they also serve the same function with the use of some question devices “ư”, “sao”…

e.g. “Anh ta mà cũng biết giúp đỡ người khác sao?”

Generally, in rhetorical questions the speaker does not expect an answer from the hearer, since the answer is given by the speaker himself. Therefore, in everyday communication, language learners should know what rhetorical questions are used in specific social contexts to understand the implication of speakers and may have an appropriate response or attitude.

3. Examination questions

The third type of questions, according to speakers' intentions, is examination questions. In this type, one asks a question not because he or she assumes that you have some information that he needs, but because he wants to find out whether you know the answer. For example, in a math lesson of how to read the clock face, teacher shows students a clock with the minute hand on twelve and the hour hand on three, then he asks: “What time is it?” Here, the teacher knows the answer but he is not sure if his students know it or not. So, the questioner is testing the knowledge of the respondent. The students are supposed to have the answer “It’s 3 o’clock”. Examination questions are used for didactic or educational purposes by teachers, parents or superiors. In fact, this function exists in most of the languages, especially in education. In Vietnamese, we use the examination questions in classroom or exam room (particularly oral exams). For examples, a Math teacher may ask: “Muốn tính chu vi hình vuông, ta phải làm như thế nào?”

Because the special feature of examination questions, most of the time, the askers are superior while the answerers are inferior. And answerers are required to give a correct answer to the askers. It’s important to note that the examination questions are not open questions, because there are the fixed key for each questions.

4. Tag questions

A tag question is a special construction in English. It is a statement followed by a mini-question. The whole sentence is a "tag question", and the mini-question at the end is called a "question tag". We use tag questions at the end of statements to ask for confirmation. They mean something like: "Am I right?" or "Do you agree?". They can also be an indicator of emphasis or irony. They are very common in English. Tag questions are more common in colloquial spoken usage than in formal written usage. We should note that such structure does not exist in Vietnamese. Therefore in this sections, I will give the equivalent translation in Vietnamese for every example given.

First of all, the confirmation function of tag question is used with rising voice. The main usage is verifying or checking information that we are not sure it is true or false.

Henry couldn’t come, could he?

When this question is asked with a rising intonation at the end of the sentence, the speaker is in doubt or asks for verification. With the falling intonation, the speaker is somehow sure of the answer and implicitly suggests Mary’s inability to come. In this case, tag questions are used as rhetorical question because no answer is expected. Consequently, when using this question, askers often expect listeners to answer ‘yes’.

The Vietnamese equivalence could be “Henry không thể đến được phải không?” or “Henry không thể đến được sao?”. In contrast to the falling and rising intonation in English, we have to ask for confirmation with only rising voice at the end of the sentence.

Secondly, tag questions are usually used for effect when we are trying to be sarcastic, or making a strong point. Sometimes, people use tag questions to express disapproval or complaint. For instance:

So you have had a puncture again, haven’t you?

In Vietnamese: Vậy ra em lại bị xì lốp xe nữa hả?

The suggested context of these questions is that they are the teacher’s response to a pupil’s excuse of being late. It is possible for a positive statement to be followed by a positive tag for even more effect (sarcasm, anger, disbelief, shock, concern etc.).For examples,

  • You think you're funny, do you? “Cậu nghĩa cậu buồn cười lắm à?”

5. Questions with other indirect speech acts:

a. Greetings:

Greeting is one of the most important parts of everyday conversations in every culture. Greeting is an act of communication in which people intentionally make their presence known to each other, to show attention to, and to suggest a type of relationship between them. In English (as in all languages), there are different ways to greet people in formal and informal situations. Accidentally, English and Vietnamese both use some kinds of interrogative structures for greetings functions. Let’s take the expression “How do you do?” as an examle. When meeting someone formally for the first time, we often shake their hand and say "How do you do?". Actually, it isn't really a question. It just means "Hello". Although it follows exactly the form of a question, it does not require any information from the listener at all. And the listener isn’t supposed to give a response as an answer.

e.g. In a business context, a tradesman wants to introduce clients with each other

    • “Mr Mitchell, I'd like to introduce you to my manager, Henry Lewis."

  • Mr Mitchell could then say:

    • "How do you do?" and Henry Lewis is supposed to say "How do you do?" as a perfect response.

Besides the greetings in formal context in question forms, English has a lot of interrogative expressions for informal or everyday conversations between friends or family members. The table below shows us some of the common ones:

Greetings expressions

Expected responses

  • How are you?

  • What's up?

  • How are you doing?

  • How ya doing?

  • How are things?

  • Very well, thank you. And you? (formal)

  • Fine / Great (informal)

  • Not too bad. How about you?

In fact, these “questions” are not used to ask for information of health or recent conditions of the listener. They are just the common means to start a conversation. As a result, you do not need to give a detailed description of how you are getting on. The responses “And you?” and “How about you?” serve the similar function.

Vietnamese also usually use interrogative sentences for greetings. However, Vietnamese people do not use questions about health, or recent information. Instead, they often use questions about what activity that the listener is doing at the moment of utterances. For example, when two Vietnamese men who are friends meet each other accidentally on their way, one often says: “Cậu đang đi đâu vậy?”, which means “Where are you going?”. It’s a very common expression of Vietnamese people when greeting each other. In fact, the other does not need to answer exactly where he is going. He can continue the conversation without answering it. He also just needs to respond: “Ồ, mình đang đi đằng này một tí.” – “I’m just going to somewhere”. These are some other common greetings in Vietnamese

  • “Anh đang làm gì đấy?” – “What are you doing?”

  • “Bác đã ăn cơm chưa?” – “Have you eaten lunch?”

  • “Cậu đang đọc sách à?” – “Are you reading books”, supposing that a guest visit his friend’s house when his friend is reading books.

With these “questions”, the expected polite response should be simply “Yes, I am” or “Yes, I have” although what the listener is doing might be obvious to the speaker.

b. Requests

When we make requests, we are asking someone to do something on our wish, usually in a formal and polite way. Therefore, invitation, suggestion, asking for permission or making an offer can also be classified as requests. Because one of the polite strategies is indirectness, using interrogative structures to make requests is very common in both English and Vietnamese. Questions as indirect requests are obviously better than imperative direct sentences because the listeners will not feel that that they are imposed to do things. As a result, the listener still feels good even if he can not accept the request. And he may have less pressure thanks to the use of interrogative as making a request.

In English, we usually use these expressions to make requests:

  • "Can you open the window for me, please?”

  • Could you please open the window for me?”

  • Will you open the window for me, please?”

The supposed response for these requests with model verbs should be “you’re welcome” or “Yes, of course.” if you accept the requests. However, if someone asks you “Would you mind openind the window for me, please?”, the answer “No” means that you accept and “Yes” is your denial. In Vietnamese, such interrogatives might be formed by adding the word “giúp”/ “nhờ”, which means “help”, in a request, combined with some phrases, such as “làm ơn” or “được không?” at the end of the sentence to show that the speaker is asking for a favour and he really appreciate it.

e.g. Bạn giúp mình mở cửa được không? – “Could you help me to open the door?”

English people also prefer interrogatives for invitations. There are a variety of expressions of this function in both formal and informal situations. These are some of the invitations that English people often use:

Would you like to…?

Would you care to…?

Would you be interested in …?

Interrogative invitations in Vietnamese are not very complicated to form. They just include the content of the invitation and some words like “nhé” , “nha” at the end of sentences for informal situations… For example, “Anh uống nước nhé?”. For a formal one, Vietnamese also use alternative questions with phrases like “được không?”, although they are not really the common use.

e.g. “Bạn đến dự sinh nhật mình được không?”

In short, interrogative sentences used for functions of requesting are very familiar in Vietnamese and English. There are some small differences in the uses of some structures as well as specific features of each language; however, they are very effective ways to make requests in everyday communication.

c. Threatening

One of the most special functions of interrogative utterances in Vietnamese might be threatening and defying. Let’s take this situation as an example. In a quarrel between two men, one of them has lost his control and say to the other “Mày muốn gì? Muốn đánh nhau phải không?”. In this case, this man does not really want to know about what his opponent wants, but in fact, he is making a threat. The consequence of this utterance might be a fight between them. We can see that questions for threatening are used in very informal contexts with violent factors, especially between gangsters, robbers or criminals. Actually English does not often uses interrogative utterances as threatening devices. Because in similar situations, English people do not usually ask “Do you want a fight?”. It sounds very unnatural.

Teaching implication

We all know that every language is different from each other not only in the grammar, vocabulary, but also in the usage. These differences cause a lot of trouble for language learners who want to learn a new language. Questions or interrogative sentences in Vietnamese and English also have many distinctive features. As English learners, students should know the different functions of questions. Therefore, English teachers must help them to distinguish the different uses of some kinds of questions in different situations and social contexts. Through a contrastive view into pragmatic functions of interrogative utterances in English and Vietnamese, I would like to discuss some implications for the sake of teaching English and Vietnamese as a foreign language.

First of all, the most obvious difference between English and Vietnamese considering interrogative structures is that English has tag questions while Vietnamese does not. Therefore, English teachers may face some obstacles when teaching this special structure. Teacher should pay attention to not only the forms, the constructions of tag questions but also the usage of them in everyday conversation. The best method to help the students know how to use tag questions appropriately in English should be giving them the situations, in other words, the real-life social context. Then, we could explain the functions of each case, including two main functions: expressing confirmation and irony. For the practice activities, role play could be an effective one. Students may have chance to speak English and using tag questions in different situations. Moreover, translation of tag questions is also a difficult issue. Because there is not such structure in Vietnamese, the way we translate tag questions is based most on the meanings, the intentions of the speakers to find the most appropriate equivalence which can convey the emotion and the attitude of the speakers. Therefore, English teachers should consider carefully how to translate tag questions into Vietnamese.

Secondly, English and Vietnamese use different interrogative structures in greetings. It causes difficulty for learners of both Vietnamese and English. There is a funny story that a Vietnamese student meets an English exchange student. Vietnamese student follows his habit of greetings and asks the English student “Where are you going?”. Then he gets an embarassing response “I’m going to the toilet.” We can see that if learners do not know how to use greetings devices appropriately, it will cause a lot of problems in intercultural communication. As English teachers, we should give them enough language input, including not only how to greet but also how to answer naturally. For example, if an English friend says to you “How are things?”, you should respond “not too bad!” or “I’m fine, thanks”. Certainly, you should not give them a detailed description of your activities.

Last but not least, other special functions of interrogative sentences are very important for language learners. Learning all of these functions, they can make much progress in their English, especially in spoken language. They will know how to use interrogative utterances to express polite requests, invitation, suggestions, etc. They are extremely essential for daily conversations. Therefore, English teacher also needs to give instructions of these functions as well as the equivalent expressions in Vietnamese.


Interrogative structures are used very often in all languages, including English and Vietnamese. These structures serve a lot of different functions. Each function may serve a small part in the language it belongs to, but all of them have an important role because of its high frequency of appearance in speech and informal writing. There are many differences in the use of them in English and Vietnamese. As the results, Vietnamese students of English are often confused and sometimes misunderstand when dealing with English questions. Examining the functions of them of the two languages in a contrastive view could help teachers improve their knowledge. Moreover, they have chance to draw some teaching implications, which can help them a lot in their career. I hope that what mentioned in this paper will offer useful information help to understand more deeply about questions and their functions in communication.


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Conklin, H. (1920). The Field Of Wonder. Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia Library.Retrieved 2011-12-20, from

Fillmore, Ch. (1986) On Grammatical Constructions. Department of Linguistics, University of California: Berkeley

Gideon O. B. Rhetorical Questions. Specialized language definitions. Brigham Young University. Retrieved 2011-12-20, from

Le, D. (1996) Ngữ nghĩa – ngữ dụng câu hỏi chính danh (trên ngữ liệu tiếng Việt. Unpublished doctoral disertation, Đại học Khoa Học Xã Hội & Nhân Văn, Đại học quốc gia Hà Nội.

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