To illustrate the various ways that questions can be framed in English, here are 12 memorable exchanges from the classic film Casablanca.
In Casablanca, at the beginning of the flashback scene in Paris, Humphrey Bogart pops open a bottle of champagne and then immediately pops a few questions to Ingrid Bergman:
Rick: Who are you really? And what were you before? What did you do and what did you think? Huh?Despite that pledge, the dialogue in Casablanca is rich with questions--some of them answered, many of them not.
Ilsa: We said no questions.
With apologies to the screenwriters (Julius Epstein, Philip Epstein, Howard Koch, and Casey Robinson), I've plucked 12 of these exchanges out of context to illustrate the various ways that questions can be framed in English. To learn more about any of these interrogative strategies, follow the links to our Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms.
- Wh- Questions
As the name suggests, a wh- question is one that's formed with an interrogative word (what, who, whom, whose, which, when, where, why, or how) and that allows an open-ended answer--something other than "yes" or "no."
Annina: M'sieur Rick, what kind of man is Captain Renault?
Rick: Oh, he's just like any other man, only more so.
Annina: No, I mean, is he trustworthy? Is his word . . .
Rick: Now, just a minute. Who told you to ask me that?
Annina: He did. Captain Renault did.
Rick: I thought so. Where's your husband?
Annina: At the roulette table, trying to win enough for our exit visa. Of course, he's losing.
Rick: How long have you been married?
Annina: Eight weeks. . . .
- Yes-No Questions
Another aptly named interrogative construction, the yes-no question invites the listener to choose between only two possible answers.
Laszlo: Ilsa, I . . .
Laszlo: When I was in the concentration camp, were you lonely in Paris?
Ilsa: Yes, Victor, I was.
Laszlo: I know how it is to be lonely. Is there anything you wish to tell me?
Ilsa: No, Victor, there isn't.
- Declarative Questions
As Rick demonstrates, a declarative question is a yes-no question that has the form of a declarative sentence but is spoken with rising intonation at the end.
Ilsa: Richard, I had to see you.
Rick: You use "Richard" again? We're back in Paris.
Rick: Your unexpected visit isn't connected by any chance with the letters of transit? It seems as long as I have those letters I'll never be lonely.
- Tag Questions
A tag question (like Rick's "wouldn't it?") is a question that's added to a declarative sentence, usually at the end, to engage the listener, verify that something has been understood, or confirm that an action has taken place.
Rick: Louis, I'll make a deal with you. Instead of this petty charge you have against him, you can get something really big, something that would chuck him in a concentration camp for years. That would be quite a feather in your cap, wouldn't it?
Renault: It certainly would. Germany . . . Vichy would be grateful.
- Alternative Questions
An alternative question (which typically ends with a falling intonation) offers the listener a closed choice between two answers.
Ilsa: After Major Strasser's warning tonight, I am frightened.
Laszlo: To tell you the truth, I am frightened, too. Shall I remain here in our hotel room hiding, or shall I carry on the best I can?
Ilsa: Whatever I'd say, you'd carry on.
- Echo Questions
An echo question (such as Ilsa's "Occupied France?") is a type of direct question that repeats part or all of something which someone else has just said.
Ilsa: This morning you implied that it was not safe for him to leave Casablanca.
Strasser: That is also true, except for one destination, to return to occupied France.
Ilsa: Occupied France?
Strasser: Uh huh. Under a safe conduct from me.
- Embedded Questions
Typically introduced by a phrase such as "Could you tell me . . .," "Do you know . . .," or (as in this example) "I wonder . . .," an embedded question is a question that shows up inside a declarative statement or another question.
Laszlo: M'sieur Blaine, I wonder if I could talk to you?
Rick: Go ahead.
A blend of "whimper" and "imperative," the term whimperative refers to the conversational convention of casting an imperative statement in question form to convey a request without causing offense.
Ilsa: Will you ask the piano player to come over here, please?
Waiter: Very well, Mademoiselle.
- Leading Questions
In courtroom dramas, attorneys usually object if the opposing counsel asks a leading question-- a question that contains (or at least implies) its own answer. In this example, Laszlo is actually interpreting Rick's motives, not questioning them.
Laszlo: Isn't it strange that you always happened to be fighting on the side of the underdog?
Rick: Yes. I found that a very expensive hobby.
Here, both Rick and Laszlo employ the rhetorical strategy of hypophora, by which a speaker raises a question and then immediately answers it himself.
Laszlo: If we stop fighting our enemies, the world will die.
Rick: What of it? Then it'll be out of its misery.
Laszlo: You know how you sound, M'sieur Blaine? Like a man who's trying to convince himself of something he doesn't believe in his heart. Each of us has a destiny, for good or for evil.
- Rhetorical Questions
A rhetorical question is one that's asked merely for effect with no answer expected. Presumably the answer is obvious.
Ilsa: I know how you feel about me, but I'm asking you to put your feelings aside for something more important.
Rick: Do I have to hear again what a great man your husband is? What an important cause he's fighting for?
In an effort to shake Rick out of his grim mood, Sam employs another rhetorical strategy, commoratio: emphasizing an idea (in this case, a whimperative) by repeating it several times in different ways.
Sam: Boss. Boss!
Sam: Boss, ain't you going to bed?
Rick: Not right now.
Sam: Ain't you planning on going to bed in the near future?
Sam: You ever going to bed?
Sam: Well, I ain't sleepy either.
At this point, if we were in class, I might ask if anyone had any questions. But I've learned a lesson from Captain Renault: "Serves me right for asking a direct question. The subject is closed." Here's looking at you, kids.