Alternative questions: Rules and Meaning

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Alternative questions are a very interesting category of questions in English.

Remember to read How to learn English with audiobooks for FREE

For example, we ask a general question to get a YES or NO answer.

Question: Do you like dogs?
Answer: Yes I do.

We ask a special question to get more information.

Question: What kind of dogs do you like?
Answer: I like cats!

Why do we need Alternative questions?

We ask an Alternative Question to get an answer from several options. We offer these options in the question itself:

Do you prefer to go swimming or skiing?

We use the conjunction or to separate the answer choices in an Alternative question.

Aside from using the conjunction or, Alternative questions look exactly the same as General or Special questions.

Why, by asking an alternative question, do we offer an alternative of several options? Because it is very convenient in some cases.

For example, imagine that John comes to visit Jessica. Jessica can ask him:

John, do you want something to drink?

But if Jessica has nothing but tea and coffee, she might ask:

John, would you like some tea or coffee?

Jessica offered John an alternative between the drinks that Jessica has: tea or coffee. Jessica doesn’t need to ask if John wants something to drink, because she wants to clarify what exactly John wants to drink, choosing between tea and coffee only.

How to form an alternative question

We ask Alternative Questions using the same rules that we use to form General Questions. Only at the end of alternative questions, we add an answer option, then put the conjunction or after which we add another answer option.

We put the auxiliary verb first. We put the subject after the auxiliary. Then we put the main verb. Then we add the first and second alternatives separated by the word “or”.

Auxiliary verb (do, did, can, will, have) + Subject (I, you, boy, John, people) + main verb (read, watch, think) + alternative or alternative

Do you like cats or dogs?

Are they going on vacation tomorrow or the day after tomorrow?

Does John like apples or bananas?

The infographic shows how to form an alternative question.
How to form an alternative question.

How to answer alternative questions

We cannot answer an alternative question using short answers such as yes or no.

Because an alternative question offers two or more options (alternatives) to choose from.

Therefore, when we are answering an alternative question, we must make it clear which alternative we prefer.

We can start the answer straight away with an alternative:

Question: John would you like tea or coffee?
Answer: Coffee, please.

Answering, we can choose all the options:

Question: John, do you want us to go to the theater or the cinema today?
Answer: Let’s go to the cinema and the theater.

We can answer alternative questions in different ways:

Question: John, can we go to the theater or the cinema?
Answer: Sorry, I’m tired and don’t want to go to the cinema or the theater. Let’s stay at home today.

Questions without the second alternative

There is another interesting way to form an alternative question without using the second alternative. What does it mean?

In a usual alternative question, after or, we put the second alternative (second answer option).

Did you go on a date with John or Tom?

But we can skip the second part (not suggest the second alternative) and just leave the or:

Do you wanna go dancing or?

Will they go by car or?

Do you enjoy spending time with him or?

We use this “short” version of alternative questions in spoken English. When our interlocutor understands what we want to say.

In spoken language, we emphasize the or making the or sounds meaningful or intriguing.

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