The Discourse Functions of Sentences


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Sentences may be classified according to their use in discourse. We recognise four main sentence types:

  • declarative
  • interrogative
  • imperative
  • exclamative


Declarative sentences are used to convey information or to make statements:

David plays the piano
I hope you can come tomorrow
We've forgotten the milk

Declarative sentences are by far the most common type.


Interrogative sentences are used in asking questions:

Is this your book?
Did you receive my message?
Have you found a new job yet?

The examples above are specifically YES/NO INTERROGATIVES, because they elicit a response which is either yes or no.

ALTERNATIVE INTERROGATIVES offer two or more alternative responses:

Should I telephone you or send an email?
Do you want tea, coffee, or espresso?

Yes/no interrogatives and alternative interrogatives are introduced by an auxiliary verb.

WH- INTERROGATIVES, on the other hand, are introduced by a wh- word, and they elicit an open-ended response:

What happened?
Where do you work?
Who won the Cup Final in 1997?

Questions are sometimes tagged onto the end of a declarative sentence:

David plays the piano, doesn't he?
We've forgotten the milk, haven't we?
There's a big match tonight, isn't there?

These are known as TAG QUESTIONS. They consist of a main or auxiliary verb followed by a pronoun or existential there


Imperative sentences are used in issuing orders or directives:

Leave your coat in the hall
Give me your phone number
Don't shut the door

Tag questions are sometimes added to the end of imperatives:

Leave your coat in the hall, will you?
Write soon, won't you?

In an imperative sentence, the main verb is in the base form. This is an exception to the general rule that matrix clauses are always finite.  


Exclamative sentences are used to make exclamations:

What a stupid man he is!
How wonderful you look!


The four sentence types exhibit different syntactic forms, which we will be looking at in a later section. For now, it is worth pointing out that there is not necessarily a one-to-one relationship between the form of a sentence and its discourse function. For instance, the following sentence has declarative form:

You need some help

But when this is spoken with a rising intonation, it becomes a question:

You need some help?

Conversely, rhetorical questions have the form of an interrogative, but they are really statements:

Who cares? ( = I don't care)


More on Clauses and Sentences...


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