I suppose I’m not the only academic who believes that students who ask interesting questions display more promise that those who don’t. One of the qualities of good teaching is to try to get our students to challenge what they read and hear -- sometimes to even challenge what we tell them in class, as long as their questions are unambiguous and pertinent.
It’s relatively easy for teachers’ questions to get students to regurgitate important facts, but finding out what else is churning in their minds can be more difficult. How we ask questions can be as important as it is in the legal arena, where police officers interview suspects and lawyers ask exactly what happened during hearings and trials.
Inept questioning strategies can create serious problems. In the legal context, sometimes what looks like perjury can seem that way because the question was so badly worded. For example, some years ago, Samuel Bronston, a movie producer whose business had gone bankrupt, was interviewed at a creditors’ committee bankruptcy hearing after which he was charged with perjury for his answers. The problem stemmed from the questioner’s apparently simple words, “have” and “you.”
Q: Do you have any bank accounts in Swiss banks, Mr. Bronston?
A: No, sir.
Q: Have you ever?
A: The company had an account for about six months, in Zurich.
Here Bronston’s answers were not lies or lapses in memory because what he said was literally true. The questioner asked him, “ do you have any,” indicating the present time. At one time in the past Bronston had held a personal account in a Swiss bank but he was truthful when he said that he didn’t have one now. Bronston also interpreted the questioner’s pronoun, you, as a plural pronoun referring to his company, which was also literally true.
Bronston was convicted of perjury because the prosecutor inferred that he lied by claiming he had never had a personal account. But based on the way the question was asked, Bronston’s answer was truthful. He appealed his conviction all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, which unanimously reversed the lower and appellate courts’ decisions, concluding that the perjury statute refers to what witnesses state, not what the prosecutor implied it to mean, adding that it’s the prosecutor’s job to discover whether or not a witness’s response is relevant to the question. Bronston vs. United States is a seminal case in questions of perjury in federal jurisprudence.
Whether to students or defendants, the way people ask questions involves many things, including the stress of the questioning event and the presence of potentially ambiguous words. Our efforts to make judgments about the responses must take these conditions into account.
Roger Shuy is a professor emeritus of linguistics at Georgetown University, where he created and led its doctoral program in sociolinguistics.