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TOEFL Listening Question Type: Function

Function questions test your understanding of pragmatics, or the implied meaning that we get from context. They often will ask about a very particular part of the passage, even just a single word. The question will replay a segment of the recording that contains the topic of the question, and then will replay just the topic. There will be no transcriptions provided for any part of these questions—all the information will be provided through listening.

Function questions do not deal with the meaning of the words the speaker says, but rather with the  information that is implied by how the speaker says them. Let’s take a look at a (partial) list of the general rhetorical functions you may need to be able to identify.



Irony occurs when the speaker says the opposite of what s/he means. You can generally tell when something is meant ironically because  the literal meaning of the sentence wouldn’t make sense in context. Sarcasm is a particular kind of irony that is most likely to occur in a conversation. Usually when speakers are being sarcastic, they will use exaggerated intonation to show this. For example, you may hear someone say “That’s just GREAT,” meaning that whatever they’re talking about is terrible.



A speaker may use redirection to change the topic or the direction of a conversation. Professors may use it in lectures to introduce a new point or to get back on track after getting off topic. Common redirect words include “OK,” “so,” and “alright.”



Sometimes, professors in lecture will make a mistake and then have to correct themselves.  Any correction is a likely topic for a function question. A clarification is when the speaker did not make a mistake, but still wants to add more information to make sure the listener understands. The phrases used to introduce corrections and clarifications are sometimes similar, so watch out for these ones, and use context and intonation to help you decide what the speaker means. Sentences that contain corrections and clarifications often begin with phrases like “What I meant was…,” “I mean”, “That is,” and “Or rather.”


Implied/indirect questions and requests

An implied or indirect question is when the speaker either asks a question, expecting the listener to answer a slightly different question, or makes a statement, expecting the listener to understand that he is actually asking a question and expects an answer. For example, imagine someone saying “I wonder if you could open the window.” The speaker knows you can open the window, and s/he isn’t actually asking if you can open the window. Instead, he’s asking if you are willing to.  Another example would be a student who tells his professor, “You’re probably too busy to meet with me, aren’t you?” The student is actually requesting that the professor meet with him/her.


Rhetorical questions

A rhetorical question is the opposite of the question we just talked about. It occurs when the speaker asks a question, not expecting an answer. Instead, s/he asks the question in order to make a point. Think of a parent who, when angry at their teenage child, asks, “Just who do you think you are?” Of course both people know who the child is, but the parent asks this to make the point that the child is acting inappropriately.


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