Thursday, March 16, 2006

How to confuse an Australian

There's (at least) one thing that Australians do that still catches me out every time.

It's the "How __ is __?" when they mean it as an exclamation rather than a question.

My office mate turned to me today and said, "How hot was it last week?!"
I'm still not entirely sure what the correct response to this would be. But judging by the look of bafflement on her face and then the way she rolled her eyes, I am pretty certain it's not what I replied, which was, "32 degrees."

14 Comments:

shrinkykitten said...

The correct response is:
"I know!"
or
"Tell me about it!"
or
"Dude, you're preaching to the choir!"
all of which must be said as though you are fully feeling her pain.

rwellor said...

really? In the other countries you've lived in they didn't have rhetorical questions?

StyleyGeek said...

That's a good point rwellor. It does look like your typical rhetorical question. But in my variety of English, we definitely don't do rhetorical questions with the "How X is Y?" structure.

So I've been trying to work out what it is about it that makes me not parse it as a typical rhetorical question.

At first I thought it was because it actually does require some sort of response from the listener. But maybe that isn't entirely true. I can imagine a situation where someone says, "How hot was it yesterday? My god, I nearly died of heat stroke..." and keeps talking. And that doesn't seem _bad_ to me, although I probably don't have natural instincts for these things since I've only heard them since I've been here.

And it's definitely not the "X is Y" part of the structure that is weird to me, because I'm comfortable with rhetorical questions like "Who _is_ that girl?" (although maybe that just means I've watched too much Buffy).

I think it is the use of "how" that is unusual for me. Rhetorical questions like "How could anyone do such a thing?" seem normal to me, but in this case it is a "how" of manner, not a "how" of quality/quantity. Which suggests I would be equally weirded out by questions like "How much...?" used rhetorically.

And, thinking about it, I am. "How much did that hurt?" for example, only has the reading for me of a true question, not a rhetorical one.

I've learned to recognise the intonation clues on these things most of the time. Like in the "How hot was it today?" the stress goes on "hot" if it's a true question and on "today" if it's rhetorical. Mostly. But for emphasis, the rhetorical question seems to sometimes have the stress elsewhere, and that's when I get caught out.

Anyway, thanks for that observation rwellor. It was interesting to clarify exactly what about that phrase really is so strange to me.

Oh, and if there are any other NZers reading this blog, does someone else want to weigh in and prove it's not just me being strange?

Lucy said...

I think I'd use the opposite stresses to you, but I might add in a "frickin'" to emphasise the quasi-rhetorical-ness.

StyleyGeek said...

You're no doubt right about the stresses, Lucy -- like I said, I don't have any natural instincts for these things because they're just weird to me.

StyleyGeek said...

Oh, and I just came up with some questions that I think _no one_ would interpret as rhetorical (not even Australians?), even though there really isn't any reason why they couldn't be:

(1) "How many chocolates are in that packet?"

(Context: imagine a packet that someone is shaking out onto the table, and more and more chocolates keep falling out until you can't believe they all fitted in there in the first place).

(2) "What time tomorrow is that?"

(Context: someone invites you to a party tomorrow that starts at some ridiculous time of day when you wouldn't have believed anyone would have a party, e.g. 5 in the morning, or something).

The point being, of course, that some question structures make happy little rhetorical questions and others don't seem to. But which are allowed and disallowed is not entirely the same for every dialect.

PS: Feel free to disagree with me and say that these are perfectly okay as rhetorical questions in your dialect. It would be interesting if anyone does think they are okay.

Lucy said...

is it actually still a question at all, or just an exclamation that requires a response? The acceptable answer to these questions doesn't actually fit as a question and answer pair so it seems more like comment and acknowledgement. I think it's similar to saying "oh my god, it's so hot today!". You're still expected to say "I know!", but it's not exactly an answer.
I also do think it's possible to say any of these questions (including the last 2 examples you gave) and just keep talking without expecting a response, although the rhetorical-ness is less obvious if you stop at the question mark. e.g. "how early is that party tomorrow? I can't believe they expect us to be there at 5am!"
(I think the form requires a "how", because it's a complaint about something being extreme - the literal answer needs to be "very/a lot")

Lucy said...

I'd forgotten you already talked about the "how" being a problem. I think the quality/quantity "how" is fine, but it has to be a mutual experience, so your "how much did that hurt?" example would only work as a rhetorical question if it referred to something like a shared fitness class or banging heads (literally) with someone.

StyleyGeek said...

Good point about the shared experience.

If we are calling these a subclass of rhetorical questions, we can probably say that all rhetorical questions are just exclamations.

Also, my point about the two examples in my last commment (esp the "what time tomorrow is that") is not about the "how" structures anymore, but rather that not all true questions have the option to be used as rhetorical questions/exclamations in other contexts. And the reason why "what time tomorrow is that?!" is disallowed is not because it isn't a "how" question, since "what sort of time for a party is that?!" is okay as a rhetorical question/exclamation for me, anyway.

Ah, except that now I read your comment again more carefully, I see that you find the last two examples acceptable as exclamations too.

My theory goes down the drain. Maybe Australians _do_ allow any question to be used as an exclamation. Freaky.

Lucy said...

The usual sort of rhetorical question seems more like an actual question to me, but I can't seem to explain why in a way that excludes this kind, so I guess you're right.

I'm not quite that freaky. I don't think "what time tomorrow is that?" works in that form as a rhetorical question. I think the problem is that time isn't subjective enough; this kind of question relies on assuming a shared judgement. So "what temperature was it today?" doesn't work the way "how hot was it today?" does.

Discussing differences in language is one of the most fun things about living in another country, I think :)

StyleyGeek said...

I think you are right about the shared judgement thing. But I think that sometimes an exclamation can imply a subjective judgement, even when the _explicit_ form of it doesn't.

E.g. "Who _is_ that girl?" (In one of the early seasons of Buffy when Oz first starts seeing Willow around, every time she does or says something smart, Oz turns to his friends and asks this, which, since the scene usually cuts out there, works more like an "That girl is so cool!" exclamation than a real question.)

Similarly, when you see something freaky lurking at the back of a fridge that you haven't cleaned in months, you might go, "What the hell is that?" where the shared judgement is something like "That is disgusting", so that it isn't a true request for identification.

So these particular examples are overtly not at all subjective, but implicitly I think they can sometimes work that way. Which is the difference between these and the "What time tomorrow is that?!", which can't work implicitly as a exclamation with the shared judgement of "That's a stupid time".

I do *feel* though that (at least a big part of) the difference between that sentence and ones that do work as rhetorical questions/exclamations is something along the lines of what you have been saying, Lucy, even if I can't quite pin it down. So I'm really just arguing for the sake of it, and because I, too, have an addiction to discussing differences in language.

Our dept has, besides Australians, two NZers, two Americans, a Canadian, a Brit, and a native speaker of Singapore English, (as well as numerous non-native English speakers). Pretty much every tea-break is spent having the "You say _what_?" discussion.

Lucy said...

in the last comment, I did initially claim that I could accept "what time tomorrow is that?" as a rhetorical question if you were pretending you'd never heard of such a freakishly early hour (similar to "what the hell is that?"), but having "tomorrow" in there makes it too specific, I think, so I deleted that part.

People in my dorm here had so many different words for the things on top of a stove that get hot that I can't even remember what I would have called them myself (hot plates? burners?).

Lucy said...

in the last comment, I did initially claim that I could accept "what time tomorrow is that?" as a rhetorical question if you were pretending you'd never heard of such a freakishly early hour (similar to "what the hell is that?"), but having "tomorrow" in there makes it too specific, I think, so I deleted that part.

People in my dorm here had so many different words for the things on top of a stove that get hot that I can't even remember what I would have called them myself (hot plates? burners?).

StyleyGeek said...

I call them elements, but I don't know if Australians do.

We had fun at afternoon tea last week with words for parts of cars. There was some controversy over just what a "mud-flap" referred to, for example, as well as the usual boot/trunk, etc.

The one that I find really interesting in Australia is the different words for swimwear. It seems to be (mostly) regionally dependent. So far I've collected bathers, swimmers, cossies, swimsuit, togs (my word), and another one or two that escape me now.