Being a Declarative (or Interrogative, or Imperative, or Exclamative)


Above: a genuine exclamative clause

Grammar books, and hundreds of websites out there, are appallingly confused about statements, questions, orders, and exclamations. Most of the problem lies in their failure to distinguish syntax from semantics. I want to try and sort things out a bit, and provide a little homework exercise.

Clause type is syntactic, not semantic. It shouldn’t be confused with any element of meaning or use. Standard English has four clause types (five if you treat 2a and 2b as separate), differing with respect to which words you put where:

  1. Declarative   Characteristic use: making statements. Example: He was polite. Key syntactic properties: subject precedes auxiliary and/or predicate.
  2. Interrogative   Characteristic use: asking questions.
    1. Closed interrogative: for expressing questions having a fixed, finite list of answers that the form of the question suggests. Example: Was he polite? Key syntactic properties: auxiliary before subject.
    2. Open interrogative: for expressing questions having an unbounded range of answers. Example: How polite was he? Key syntactic properties: wh-phrase at beginning of clause; auxiliary before subject if wh-phrase is not the subject of its clause.
  3. Imperative   Characteristic use: issuing directives about desired behavior by others. Example: Be polite. Key syntactic properties: plain form of verb; subject often missing.
  4. Exclamative   Characteristic illocutionary force: making exclamatory statements. Example: How polite he was! Key syntactic properties: wh-phrase at beginning of clause (headed by either how or what); subject before auxiliary.

Crucially, the characteristically associated meanings are only a default. Using an interrogative (e.g., What’s your name?) is the stereotypical way to express a question, but declaratives can also in effect convey questions, through a combination of literal meaning and pragmatic implication:

I want to know your name.
I’m asking you to tell me your name.

Imperatives, too, can be used to convey the effect of questions:

Tell me your name.
Tell me what your name is.

Even an exclamative can come pretty close to implying a question:

How I’d love to know what your name is.

Grammar books and grammar websites are particularly confused about exclamatives, which they often call “exclamatory sentences” (see the hopelessly confused page here for a random example). They imagine that any kind of sentence that might intuitively be used for exclaiming and/or ends with ‘!’ must belong, so they give examples like I can’t figure this out! (a declarative), or Out of my way! (not a clause at all).

The books and websites are confused over interrogatives too. This page begins by stating that “An interrogative sentence is a type of sentence that asks a question” (not the right definition!) and then cites examples including this two-sentence sequence from The Simpsons Movie:

Cletus: [after showing Cargill a trick with his thumb] You want to know how I do it?
Cargill: Four generations of inbreeding?

The first of these is a declarative used to present a potential answer and elicit confirmation that it’s correct. The second is a noun phrase on its own used in a similar way.

The question mark on these doesn’t make them interrogatives; it merely signals the rising intonation that interrogatives often have. Christine Gunlogson calls clauses like this rising declaratives, and gives numerous tests to show that rising declaratives and closed interrogatives have quite different presuppositions and biases. For instance, Is it raining outside? (interrogative) might be used by someone in a windowless room who has no evidence either way about the weather outside; but It’s raining outside? (declarative) is subtly different, asking for confirmation of a statement already implied by evidence and thus reasonable to assume: It would be appropriate if you started work in a windowless room on a sunny day and were surprised to see someone come in somewhat later with a dripping wet umbrella.

To have a clear enough understanding of grammar to be useful, you need to be able to separate the concepts defined in terms of grammatical form (how words fit together to make phrases and clauses) from those defined in terms of meaning (truth conditions, ideas conveyed, presuppositions, and so on).

To reinforce this, I sometimes use this little undergraduate exercise: Find plausible example sentences to fill all the cells of the matrix below. I omit exclamatives because they are less versatile, their frequency is vastly lower, and they sound more than a little old-fashioned (young speakers often use a clause of closed interrogative form such as Is he ever smart! instead of the exclamative How smart he is!). But for all the combinations of the three clause types and three illocutionary forces in the chart it is fairly easy to come up with convincing examples (in fact I’ve already provided the examples you need for the middle column).

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