Learn English – Why some questions are written in this funny way


There, I did it myself. Instead of asking "Why are some questions written in this funny way?", I produced what strikes me as bad English ever so often: Questions that are formed by starting out with "Why" (or other interrogative words), followed by what seems to be a normal subject-verb-object sentence. A few examples are quickly drawn from some other SE sites (missing question marks included), but this seems to be quite common all across the board:

  • “Why we need SELinux?”
  • “Why ATM and MPLS are at level 2.5”
  • “Why Turn Collate Off”
  • “Why BitTorrent uploads simultaneously?”
  • “Why the letters in keyboards are arranged like this?”

I do have the impression that the actual article beneath such a question is often written in quite good English, so the writer is not necessarily a beginner of the language.

Therefore my question, mainly aimed at the native speakers of English: Is this considered to be good style? Or do you find it sloppy? What's your impression when you read such a construct?

Best Answer

My impression is that the phrase was written by a non-native speaker of English, who does not know how to construct questions. (How often that impression is accurate I don’t know.) All of the examples you offer are noun phrases. For example, “why we need SELinux” might serve on its own (sans question mark) as a headline, or as part of a complete sentence:

  • Tell me why we need SELinux.
  • Why we need SELinux is…

But the terms may not stand on their own. English questions use inversion of word order and auxiliary verbs; noun phrases involving question words do not:

  1. *Why Paul went to the concert?
  2. Why did Paul go to the concert?
  3. Paul went to the concert.

The people writing these question titles are using (1) when they should be using (2), because it more closely mirrors the structure in the declarative version, (3).

Now, “Why turn ‘collate’ off?” is incidentally valid. It poses a rhetorical question using the bare form of the verb (in this case turn), asking essentially “why would you ever bother turning the ‘collate’ function off?”—why here is standing for why ever. Common examples:

  • Why bother?
  • Why wait?
  • Why waste your time?
  • Why not?