The assumptions behind questions in letters to advice columnists


Van der Meij (1987) suggested that there are eleven assumptions behind sincere, information-seeking questions. We examined the role of these assumptions in the genre of letters to advice columnists, which typically contain such questions. A large corpus of advice columnist letters was obtained and analyzed. Twenty-six percent of the questions in these letters violated at least one of van der Meij's assumptions. Although some assumptions were frequently violated, others were rarely or never violated. Subjects were asked to provide ‘goodness of question’ (G0Q) ratings for the letters with violations, and the assumptions accounted for a significant amount of the variance in the ratings. Further analyses indicated a linear, negative relationship between the ratings and the number of violated assumptions, suggesting that the violations have an additive effect. In a final study, we systematically manipulated three of the assumptions, and collected new GOQ ratings. Although subjects found the experimentally violated letters to be worse than the originals, they did not provide significantly higher ratings for letters in which the violations were ‘repaired. These results suggest that van der Meij's intuitions have psychological reality, although some assumptions appear to be more consequential than others. © 1993, Walter de Gruyter.

Publication Title