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Prompted by our Hard to Be a God book challenge1 on Literature SE, we've been trying to gather some attention by posting to relevant chat rooms.

An interesting discussion sparked in the Russian Stack Overflow chat: a user mentioned that it is ambiguous whether the original title of the book (Трудно быть богом) is a question or a statement.

I replied that this form is most often used for statements, and is unlikely to be used as a question (to be clear, we're discussing the phrase now, not the book title); however, it occurred to me that this could be used as a question in spoken language, similar to Болит нога?.

I do know that it requires a question mark at the end to be a real question, and I do know трудно ли быть богом? is much better. For the record, Russian is my mother tongue. However, I don't have much experience with formal texts (haven't studied Russian since 7th grade).

My main concern is - can this form of a question be used in formal or written Russian? How acceptable is it?


1: Everyone is welcome to participate! Ask your Hard to be a God questions, and post good answers to others' questions!

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    The book's title is a citation from the book itself, where it's an undoubtedly affirmative sentence. – Quassnoi Mar 31 '17 at 20:39
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In (written) Russian, any statement can be turned to question by adding the question mark. So, Трудно быть богом? is a correct question. Трудно быть богом. is a statement. In book names, the period is often omitted, so if a book is called Трудно быть богом without the question mark, it is a statement.

Частица ли (as in the question Трудно ли быть богом?) is not required in direct questions, but without it, the style would be colloquial/informal rather than formal. (In indirect questions like Она спросила его, трудно ли быть богом. it is required).

Summary:

  • Трудно быть богом (book name) - statement
  • Трудно быть богом? (book name) - question
  • Трудно быть богом. - statement.
  • Трудно быть богом? - question, informal style
  • Трудно ли быть богом? - question, formal style
  • Она спросила его, трудно быть богом. - incorrect
  • Она спросила его, трудно ли быть богом. - correct statement, which contains indirect question
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This form can be a question only if it is followed by an explicit question mark: "Трудно быть богом?"

Otherwise, it is hardly perceived as a question, since the more usual form would include a particle: "Трудно ли быть богом?", but the orignal title has no question mark, therefore, it can't be construed as a question.

Impersonal statement like that can't be formal. To make it formal you need an addressee:

"Трудно ли вам/ему/ей быть богом?" — and you need "ли" as well.

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First, Трудно быть богом is a statement, not a question unless finalized with a question mark.

As for your question - this form is quite acceptable but a bit informal. If used in scientific articles for example, Трудно ли быть богом is more preferable. Especially in indirect speech:

Трудно ли быть богом? (title) CORRECT, FORMAL

Быть богом – трудно. (title) CORRECT, FORMAL

Трудно быть богом? (title) INCORRECT

Она спросила его, трудно ли быть богом. CORRECT, FORMAL

Она спросила, трудно ли ему быть богом. CORRECT, FORMAL

Она спросила его, насколько трудно быть богом. CORRECT, FORMAL

Она спросила его: «Трудно быть богом?» OK, INFORMAL/ARTISTIC

Она спросила его, трудно быть богом. INCORRECT

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    Question-ending titles are also acceptable, to the best of my knowledge – Manjusri Mar 31 '17 at 16:52

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