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What's the difference between the words (to ask) - 問う, 聞く, and 訊ねる?

聞く seems like it might be more formal, and 訊ねる less common in speaking.

There's also 伺う which appears to be a humble word (謙譲語) when referring to superiors.

Does anyone have any input?

From what I gathered, 言います in place of any of these as well and people would mostly understand.

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  • 聞く: Very common. Not particularly formal nor casual. You can get away with this verb in most situations.
  • 尋ねる: Explicit, formal, a bit literary, less common. In speech, it's mainly used with humble expressions like "お尋ねしてもよろしいですか?" (May I ask you a question?). 尋ねる is the standard kanji for this verb.
  • 問う: Literary and stiff. In the sense of "to ask something to someone in front of you", you won't see this verb often except in novels. It tends to be used with serious/universal/philosophical questions (eg 人の生きる意味を問う, 教育の本質が問われている). It has other uses which are not interchangeable with 聞く.
  • 伺う: Yes, the humble verb for 聞く (both in the sense of listen and ask). It's also the humble verb for 訪ねる (to visit).
  • 質問する: Formal and unambiguous. "Make a question" rather than simple "Ask". The Japanese version of Stack Overflow has the "質問する" button.

The kanji 訊 is not in joyo-kanji list, but it can be read both as 訊【き】く and 訊【たず】ねる. These readings are mainly found in novels, but I personally never need to use this kanji.

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