Questions and Answers

I haven't yet figured out why, but it's been apparent to me for a while now that my rhetorical style tends to be that of the guy throwing out answers, as opposed to the guy tossing out questions. When I do use a question, it's almost always a rhetorical question, intended to lead the reader toward a conclusion that I'm preparing to share, as opposed to an actual request for information.

So what does this mean?

No, really. That's not rhetorical. I don't have the slightest idea what this means. Oh, sure, I've got theories, but I don't have an answer. Maybe you do. Or maybe one of my theories is actually true.

For one thing, I'm a teacher. Though teachers certainly spend a great deal of their time posing questions, those questions are almost always ones to which the answers are already known (though not necessarily by the student trying to answer). In fact, i spend a great deal of my time and energy trying to figure out exactly which questions to ask, and how to phrase them, and to whom I should pose them. I don't want to ask a question that offers the student no challenge, or that makes the student look stupid--unless of course he really deserves it--so in some ways I have to ask myself the burning question "Is this a good question?" But in the classroom, that's typically the only question I ask where I don't already know the answer. (Well, other than "Why don't you have your homework?") Given my daily routine, then, perhaps I tend to speak in declarative sentences when I post because I'm just so sick of posing questions.

Before I was a teacher, however, I was a student, and the student's job is to provide answers. I provided them for 12 years of public school, then four of college, then two and a half of grad school. That's a lot of answers. Some were very short ("Six!" "The Louisiana Purchase!" "Wayne Gretzky!") and others went on for loooooong stretches of text, particularly when I was explaining why Henry James needed to be pummeled about the head and shoulders for foisting "The Beast in the Jungle" on an unsuspecting public. But whatever the case, they were answers, and I suppose I might still be providing them in this forum because that's the main thing I learned to provide in school.

But one thing I learned in school were the concepts of genetics and upbringing, and there's no doubt that my tendency toward telling people things comes from both nature and nurture. My father is a Marine officer, which means his raison d'etre is telling subordinates the way the universe runs; officers do not, as a rule, ask those serving under them which orders should be given. Dad was also a scholar of some note in his younger days before he spent a year teaching and then took up the job of answering the question of whether people could or could not come to the University of North Carolina. My mother was salutatorian of her high school class and spent her career telling various patients what their doctors actually meant to say. And both of them, of course, spent many long years explaining to David and me such things as what time we would be home that night, or how the lawn would be mowed. And it's not as though I haven't gotten practice in this sort of thing with my own kids.

Or could it be cultural? There's a recent linguistic phenomenon called Upspeak, which has been documented primarily in the U.S. and Australia. In Upspeak (or HRT, for High Rising Terminal), even a declarative sentence tends to come upward in pitch at the end, making it sound like a question. Some linguists believe it suggests insecurity; others think it's intended to prevent interruption, because it sounds as though the speaker isn't finished. It's commonly thought to occur primarily in women, especially young women, especially in California, among the stereotypical "Valley Girl" population. So maybe I'm, like, refusing to ask questions because I don't want to sound, y'know, like I'm a 14-year-old girl?

Then again, maybe I'm just generally a know-it-all. You think?

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This page contains a single entry by Peter Cashwell published on January 26, 2010 8:52 AM.

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