In the European Union or out?

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Over the past week there has been a change in the officially ordained wording of the referendum question about European Union membership that will be put before the people of the United Kingdom some time over the coming two years. On the face of it, the change seems trivial or even pointless, because it does not allow for any new decision to be made by the voters. They will vote either to continue the UK's membership in the EU or to discontinue it. But the change provides a very clear and useful example showing the real-life importance of a linguistic distinction.

It seems the Electoral Commission, the independent body that sets the rules for British elections, decided there was a danger of a subtle bias in the way the referendum issue was to be put. The change they have required provides a helpful practical illustration of the difference between two kinds of meanings associated with what The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (CGEL) calls closed interrogatives.

Closed interrogatives are defined by the fact that the questions they express have a closed finite list of potential answers, fully determined by the form of the question. But semantically they come in two different types: polar questions and alternative questions (see CGEL, pp. 868ff). The Electoral Commission required a change from the first of these to the second.

Polar questions have an answer set with just two members: the two possible polarities that a clause can have, positive and negative. In English these can be expressed by the one-word sentence substitutes yes and no. An example of a polar question would be: Are you serious?. Either you are, in which case the correct answer is Yes, or you aren't, in which case the correct answer is No.

Alternative questions have an answer set of some arbitrary finite size provided by the question. A proper answer to the question is a choice made from these. An example would be: Would you like the beef casserole, the chicken, or the pasta?. The only answers to this are (i) that you'd like the beef casserole, (ii) that you'd like the chicken, or (iii) that you'd like the pasta.

(Don't confuse answers with responses. You could give anything you like as a response to a cabin crew member asking you the question: you could say How can I decide between three such tempting delights of airline cuisine?, or I'd like what they're having in business class right now, or I'd like you to take me to the cockpit and remain very quiet because this gun is loaded. But these wouldn't be answers to the question in the technical sense that's relevant to the semantics of interrogatives.)

Here is the version of the ballot paper that the Electoral Commission rejected — the one that would have asked a polar question:

Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union?
   ☐    Yes
   ☐    No

And here is the alternative question that the Electoral Commission changed it to:

Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?
   ☐    Remain a member of the European Union
   ☐    Leave the European Union

The feeling was apparently that the polar question put things in a way that only talked about remaining in, which is the default. Referenda are well known to have the property that the "yes" side has the advantage. And defenders of the "no" answer might have felt that their proposed action (leaving the EU) wasn't even mentioned.

So although you might have thought that to be asked whether you wanted A, when the only other possibility was clearly B, was effectively the same as being asked whether you wanted A or B, CGEL would not agree with you, and neither would the Electoral Commission. The distinction between the two might seem rather subtle at first, but the prevailing view among semanticists is that it is not trivial.

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