What are interrogatives? Do you know the seven most important questions in the English language?
The most important questions, and the starting point for The Right Questions, are the words where, what, why, when, who, how, and which. Using just seven interrogative words as the basis of a strategic questioning methodology can seem too simple at a first glance but the reason for the success of ‘The Right Questions’ approach is that these seven interrogative words are part of the basic building blocks of our language and are therefore hardwired into our thinking. In this way the simplicity becomes a fundamental strength of the system. That is why they are the most important questions of all.
“Broadly speaking, the short words are the best, and the old words best of all.” – Winston Churchill
The interrogatives and what they mean
Through language we seek to find efficient ways of expressing ourselves and communicating with others. English is an evolving language and has been refined so that there are only seven (primary) interrogative categories :
- Where PLACE (of which whence (source) and whither (destination) are derivatives)
- What THING
- Why REASON
- How MANNER
- When TIME
- Who PERSON (of which whom and whose are derivatives)
- Which SELECTION
Language and thought
“Language is the dress of thought.” – Samuel Johnson
Our language has developed over hundreds of years to reflect the things we most need to ask – therefore it is logical that we should look to the first principles of English when we approach a problem. It is a simple concept but all too often we forget to ask each of the seven basic questions in reference to a given problem or we do not frame the questions properly. If we do not ask the right questions (the most important questions) we are unlikely to come up with the right answers.
Language does not affect only our communication; it also affects our thinking. Philosophers have long debated as to whether our thinking is truly free or if we are constrained linguistically. For example Ludwig Wittgenstein said:
“The limits of my language means the limits of my world.”
Linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf went as far as to say that our native tongue limits the way we think and act in what he referred to as the ‘principle of linguistic relativity’. At the other end of the spectrum Jerry Fodor proposes that there is a ‘language of thought’ encoded in the mind that transcends linguistic communities and has been the basis for the common elements in various languages.
Whatever our philosophical persuasion, science shows that as we observe, absorb and remember things, we create neural pathways in our brains that speed up thinking, recall and decision-making and that language becomes an intrinsic part of this process.
The power of association
For example, in languages such as French, Spanish and German where objects have a gender assignment, there is an association built in to the language that means speakers are more likely to think of those items as being either more masculine or feminine in nature (whereas in reality they are non-gender specific), than in the case of a language such as English that does not have gender assignment.
Knowing the power of association that words may have can be very useful. For example psychiatrists have used this knowledge to explore further how our minds work and help to diagnose and treat people with psychological issues.
In another vein Tony Buzan has applied these principles more broadly in his writing on memory techniques and used them to develop his Mind Mapping technique of note taking.
But as our brains make certain connections and associations we can all too easily be led down a certain train of thought or have our thinking constrained. As George Orwell noted:
“If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.”
Interviewers who want to get a certain answer have exploited this fact and – at the most extreme level – hypnotists and advertisers have used the persuasive nature of language to influence our actions and decisions.
Freeing our thinking
This kind of constraining influence is something we want to avoid when thinking strategically; we need to be able to ‘think outside the box’. We need something that helps us to be creative and yet have some form, a tool that is comprehensive but that is also second nature to us.
This is why using interrogatives, the Wh-words in English, is so useful: they are tools that we already have at our disposal. As they are open questions we can use them to think freely and not just to get a closed ‘yes’ or ‘no’ response. This is also why journalists and law enforcers – seeking to get the facts of a situation and avoid leading questions – have employed ‘the 5 Ws’ question technique.
The evolution of the 5Ws
It was found that the ‘5 Ws’ was not complete without the ‘H’ of ‘How?’ and therefore they became six questions. The final ‘W’ of ‘Which?’ (that deals with the idea of selection) is less important when just information gathering about one particular incident but it is important to us in planning because we need to consider the choice between courses of actions. This is why ‘The Right Questions’ makes use of all the seven interrogatives.
Therefore The Right Questions expands on what we already know; words that we have in our language already. This subconscious knowledge of the system is what makes it profound – we do not need to invent words or use jargon to explain it. The basis of The Right Questions is a framework that already exists in English and is just amplified so we can apply it specifically to matters of importance such as personal effectiveness and business strategy.
In the next post we will look at these important questions and why it is so useful to apply The Right Questions.
 Interrogative words: an exercise in lexical typology, Michael Cysouw, 2004