German/Grammar/Polar questions

Polar questionsEdit

Simple statements are fine, but sometimes you just need to ask, so this section will cover a simple type of question.

TerminologyEdit

German is often classified as a V2 language because of the V2 word order discussed earlier. This is not strictly true though because many sentences, and clauses within sentences, follow a different pattern. Depending on the type of sentence or clause, it might have V1 (verb first), VL (verb last), or V0 (no finite verb at all) word order. Although the V2 order is used in the most common type of sentence, a declarative statement, the other orders are frequently used and it's better to think of them as a way to categorize sentence types.

A polar question, also called a yes-no question, or perhaps in German a ja-nein question, is a question which simply askes if the corresponding statement is true. An example in English is "Are you working?" The name yes-no question question comes from the fact that "Yes," and "No," are acceptable answers. This type of question follows the V1 word order as we shall see.

Forming polar questionsEdit

In German, you can form a polar question from a statement by moving the verb from its V2 position to the beginning, the V1 position. For example:

  • Du arbeitest. ― "You are working."

becomes

  • Arbeitest du? ― "Are you working?"

This is similar to the way such questions are formed in English, except, as with negation, German does not require an extra verb ("do" or "be") as English does.

You can, of course, include adverbs to make your questions more interesting. For example:

  • Du schläfst hier. ― "You sleep here."

becomes

  • Schläfst du hier? ― "Do you sleep here?"

And

  • Sie kochen gern. ― "You like to cook."

becomes

  • Kochen Sie gern? ― "Do you like to cook?"

Verbs and subjects like to stay near each other so you would normally put the subject right after the verb, making the word order less flexible in this type of question.

The adverb nicht can be used to slant your question in a particular way, so:

  • Du hörst nicht. ― "You don't hear."

becomes

  • Hörst du nicht? ― "Don't you hear?"

Acceptable answersEdit

Knowing how to ask a question is only useful if you can understand the answer, so here is a list of possible answers. Along with the standard "yes" and "no", various adverbs can be used as well.

  • Ja. ― "Yes."
  • Nein. ― "No."
  • Vielleicht. ― "Maybe."
  • Natürlich. ― "Yes, of course."
  • Gern. ― "Yes, gladly."

With a negative question you can respond with Doch. There's no equivalent word in English but it's meaning is something like "to the contrary."

  • Hörst du nicht? ― "Don't you hear?"
  • Doch. ― "To the contrary, I can."

If you want to explain your answer, the natural thing to do is combine it with a statement:

  • Schläfst du? ― "Are you sleeping?"
  • Nein, ich arbeite. ― "No, I'm working."

Preambles and postamblesEdit

As seen in the previous example, German provides a mechanism to tack a word or two to the beginning or end of a sentence. This works in about the same way as in English, and the added words have no effect on the grammar of the rest of the sentence. Possible words include the answer to a question (as above), various interjections, and a name if you want to get someone's attention or make it clear who you're talking to.

  • Hilfe, ich falle! ― "Help, I'm falling!"
  • Schläfst du, Sara? ― "Are you sleeping, Sara?"

Tag questions form another common type of postamble. Some examples in English are "eh?" and "right?"; these are added to the end of a statement to ask for agreement from the listener. Some phrases like this in German are:

  • nicht? ― "no?"
  • was? ― "what?"
  • richig? ― "right?"
  • oder? ― "or?"
    • This one is somewhat unusual in that the counterpart in English can't be used in a similar way.
  • nicht wahr? ― "isn't it true?"

As in English, this type of phrase is highly susceptible to regional variation, so there are many other such phrases used only by people with specific accents.

There are, of course, technical terms for this kind of thing, but since both the mechanism and meaning should be familiar to English speakers already, there is no need to go into the jargon here.


Grammar

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