How long is a question?

Today I was asked a question that at first sight seems very much like the famous “How long is a piece of string?” question. “How long is a piece of string?” is something that people say when asked a question and they want to answer “It depends”, “It depends on the situation”, “It depends on the circumstances”, “How can I possibly answer that question without more information?” In other words, “You’re asking a pretty stupid question which is impossible to answer.” Here’s the question that someone asked me: “How long is a question?”

Mmmm. Let’s see. Let’s just take two hypothetical questions and measure them:

  1. Why?
  2. Do you think that, if your father had not already been president, and you were not a member of one of the richest families in the world, you would actually have ever reached a position in your life where you might even have been considered as a presidential hopeful let alone won the election, albeit by the most tenuous of margins and, some would say, in somewhat dubious circumstances?

Okay, so how long were they? Question #1 was 1 word long. Question #2 was 69 words long. I’m assuming, perhaps wrongly, that words are the unit of measure to be used in solving this question. Characters (letters and spaces) might be another option. Centimetres or inches would seem unrealistic, given that font size can change, or that a question might not even be written. Perhaps in that case the unit should be a unit of time, seconds say, or milliseconds. But let’s stick with words. They’re convenient to count, and they work just as well whether the question is written or spoken.

So we have two example questions, one short question and one long question. Some might say that the long question is excessively long. I beg to differ. It’s the sort of question that might get asked at a press conference, where a reporter might be eager to pad his question with as many conditionals and, dare we say, as much opinion as possible.

Now, I am no mathematician, but I think the general (very unscientific) approach is to add the two together (= 70) and divide by two (= 35). Will this give us the average length of a question? Can we say that on average questions are 35 words long? Mmmm. Not sure. Seems a bit over the top. Perhaps there’s something wrong with my unscientific approach. Let’s look at some more questions, some more, more “typical” questions:

Yes/No questions

  • Have you ever been to Xanadu?
  • Are you hungry?
  • Do you like curry?

Choice questions

  • Would you like tea or coffee?
  • Do you want large or small?

Question Word questions

  • Who saw the man that took my car away last night?
  • Where do you live?
  • What was the last film you watched?
  • Why didn’t you go in?
  • When do you have a few days off to go to Tahiti with me?
  • How do you open this?

(Let’s be perverse. We’re thinking about question length, but the interesting thing is that different question types invite answers of different lengths. Yes/No questions, by definition, invite short answers. Choice questions, too, invite short answers [the answer is contained in the question]. But Question Word questions with Why and How can invite long answers, perhaps even a thesis or an entire book. Nothing of any great importance in our quest for question length, but maybe something to bear in mind.)

Those are some pretty mundane questions, the sort of thing people are asking all day long. No one-word questions there, but they look pretty average to me. The longest is only 14 words long. Is there something missing? (4) Could it be that we don’t just ask questions but we interject conditionals and even opinion into our questions? (19/20) I wonder if we ever ask questions by making a statement. (11)

Those conditionals make our quest for question length a bit messier, but I don’t think we can escape them. We use them all the time. Let’s see some examples:

  • If you could ask any of your friends just one question what would it be?
  • Would you like to have dinner tonight if you’re free?
  • If you came to Europe which countries would you like to visit most?

Those look a bit longer “on average” than the questions above them. That’s inevitable really, if we’ve got to fit an extra “if clause” in there, but actually they’re not much longer. In fact none of them is as long as our Tahiti question. Still, conditionals need to be taken into consideration, methinks. And that’s especially true when you know why that someone asked me his “How long is a question?” question.

In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, when Polonius said “Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t” he wasn’t thinking of my questioner’s question – but his aside could very well apply to it. I’ll tell you a little secret. My questioner wants to create exercises for English learners in which the learners will create their own questions online. But he wants to set a limit to the length of the questions – so people don’t try to input absurdly long, nonsensical questions. And I’ll let you into another secret. He didn’t actually ask “How long is a question?” He wrote:

“I wish to set a limit as to the number of words in a question; to this effect I would like to know if there is definition of the number of words a question is composed of.”

So in fact he asked an indirect question by making a statement! Another complication :)))

Okay. So let’s get serious. By looking at question types we can start to gauge a starting point for a realistic minimum number of words in a question. As we have seen, a question could be 1 word long, but realistically 6 might be an absolute minimum to set, just for the creation of the various sentence structures. Then we have to add in the variables like phrasal verbs (two or three words instead of one), adjectives, adverbs, funny names and so on. That might take us to 12. Now we’ll throw in a conditional or two. That could take us to 18 or 20 words. And just to be on the safe side I’d throw in another 5 words as a margin: so we reach 25. So there we are. A question is 25 words long. Black and white. Couldn’t be much clearer than that.

Except that our friend the original questioner has to create an online form for people to input their questions, and he needs to set the maximum length at 25 words – and online input information is usually measured in characters, not words. After all, some people use short words and others use extremely long words. So the real question is, “How long is a word?”

PS: to answer his question more precisely I could have just said: “No, there isn’t.” That is, no, there is no definition of the number of words a question is composed of. 🙂 That would be an objective, factual answer. And he should certainly bear in mind that my long-winded response given above, which attempts to answer the spirit rather than the letter of his question, is totally subjective.

By Josef Essberger for EnglishClub February 2010
Josef started teaching English as a foreign language in 1991 and founded EnglishClub for learners and teachers in 1997.


Leave a comment

Is there anything wrong with this page? Let us know ↗️