December 20, 2012

A dialogue about question marks, intentionally punctuated.

Althouse: "Why are question marks really needed."

Meade: "That's a good question."

Althouse: "What did you say when I said why are question marks really needed."

Meade: "That's a good question."

I find myself omitting the question mark more and more lately. Why is it needed. The question is already in the words. It's absurd silliness, if you think about it — that rococo curlicue.

93 comments:

AF said...

Really?

Henry said...

Why the quote marks?

Surfed said...

And the exclamation point!

wyo sis said...

I was just going to fix my lack of question mark in the tree sculpture comment I just made, but, I guess I'll let it go.

Nonapod said...

Ron Burgundy: Well, that's going to do it for all of us here at Channel 4 News. You stay classy, San Diego. I'm Ron Burgundy?

Ed Harken: Damn it, who typed a question mark on the teleprompter? For the last time, anything you put on that prompter, Burgundy will read!

Bob Ellison said...

No, you're wrong?

Palladian said...

A question mark is necessary.

A question mark is necessary?

Yes, question marks are necessary.

campy said...

Who's Mark? And what are we questioning him about?

Anga2010 said...

Just to test myself, I read it with what I supposed to be an alternate conversation mode with all of the Meade remarks as inquiries.
Still works.

bpm4532 said...

why punctuate or capitalize. let the reader figure it out.

jimbino said...

Have you also given up on spelling of:

curlicue

?

[I punctuate like that to avoid the obvious "curlicue."]

Ann Althouse said...

@Palladian You said something I was going to put in the post: A question mark is useful when it makes something into a question that isn't a question by the words alone.

Oddly, that's the opposite of a rule some people follow for exclamation points, which is that you shouldn't use them to make sentences feel more alarming than they already do but only when they have a particular form. However, the form is one that could be mistaken for a question: What a great sentence!

rhhardin said...

Subject/verb inversion and do/be support for the verb mark a question.

Do/be support marks a nonassertive context, a larger category including questions.

I didn't say that. (nonassertive)

Didn't I say that. (nonasssertive and question)

Oso Negro said...

Dear Professor, but a few short months ago, you were tut-tutting about young women who add a verbal question mark to the end of all their sentences. With no question mark for guidance, I will read all of their writing in that voice. Bleh.

X said...

huh, I thought meade was the one omitting question marks in that exchange?

Henry said...

--Why the quote marks said James Joyce. Why not a double dash? That's what I use. I use question marks. But not double quotes.
--I used dashes said Emily Dickinson. I used dashes in the middle of a line, or at the end of a line - I just used dashes all over the place - and Capitalized - anything I felt like -
:) typed James Joyce. :) :) :)

Buddence Bunny said...

"It's absurd silliness, if you think about it — that rococo culicue."

Plain language advocates likely would say the same about the phrase "rococo culicue."

Scott M said...

It's really two questions, isn't it. First, are they necessary in order to convey information correctly and efficiently. Second, are they now so ingrained into our conventional usage that trying to change things now would do more harm than good for little or no reward.

Necessary: Think fiction. In a work of fiction, you will end up reading a lot of dialog which will almost certainly contain characters asking questions of one another. If it's a good book and you're a good reader, you will forget that you're reading and start watching that movie inside your consciousness. Question marks help your sub-conscious director give his actors proper blocking and notes, allowing the scenes and dialog to flow in a nature, tonal way. Putting a period where a question mark now sits removes that immersion, forcing you to think about things other than the characters, the dialog, the plot, etc.

Convention: If you do not include a question mark, which is the conventional way of writing an interrogative, you have to do double the mental work. 1) you have to read and process the sentence and 2) you have to reprocess the sentence as an error check because while the words formed a normal question, your brain saw a period and was jarred into wondering why the fuck it's there.

Does this clear everything up for you.

jimbino said...

And just imagine how the Spanish speakers do it: they not only use one rococo curlicue, but TWO! And one of them can't even be found on our keyboards!

Ann Althouse said...

"Dear Professor, but a few short months ago, you were tut-tutting about young women who add a verbal question mark to the end of all their sentences."

I think you're wrong about that. That's a standard complaint that I believe I have avoided. Please point it out if you think you are right.

rehajm said...

"National cat week?"

-Snoopy

Ann Althouse said...

I complain about creaky voice. That's something else.

Bob Ellison said...

This discussion bugs me. What's the goal here? More efficient communication? Conciser writing? Those are silly goals, because the payoff is so small. Do I misunderstand?

Let's eliminate the semicolon. Why bother? lets just stop trying why bother the meaning shood B cleer y r u loocin at me lIk Im an idiot

J.P. said...

A serious answer:

1. Palladian's example: Statements can be phrased as questions, and often are, in speech.

2. Redundancy helps to make language clearer for human brains. Question marks are no exception. Only computers would need a language with no redundancy.

3. English writing seems to be partly based on speech, and the question mark represents the inflection at the end of the sentence.

rhhardin said...

Picasso question mark

Gahrie said...

rather than eliminate the question mark, we need to create the sarcasm mark.

rehajm said...

The intent and emotion of the written word is so easily misunderstood and/or misinterpreted. Why consider increasing the odds of occurrence.

David said...

I leave question marks out a lot.

By mistake.

By mistake?

rehajm said...

Gahrie said...
rather than eliminate the question mark, we need to create the
sarcasm mark.

David said...

To be or not to be, that is the question.

To be or not to be?

To be?

No, two b's.

--Toby Two Bee (Early Native American playwright)

Gahrie said...

rehajm:


I'd read the article (probably why the thought occurred to me) and IMHO her solution is too clunky to be practical. It needs to be one or two keystrokes at the most.

KLDAVIS said...

It'd make more sense to use them at the beginning of the sentence, to be honest. ¡Like in Spanish!

gerry said...

rococo culicue (sic)

Lovely alliteration.

And I hate the work of e.e.cummings.

rehajm said...

Gahrie said...

...her solution is too clunky to be practical. It needs to be one or two keystrokes at the most.

Oh for chrissake. Man up...

chuck said...

"What, me worry" doesn't quite have the impact of the original. Then there are statements made into questions by intonation, "we are going to crawl through the sewer for two miles".

The Godfather said...

As a lawyer, I wouldn't anymore think of leaving out a question mark than I would a quotation mark. Perhaps in creative writing you can abjure conventions like punctuation and capitalization, but legal writing (although creative at times) isn't supposed to look creative.

Nomennovum said...

You've seen people who use question marks at the end of simple statements? I'm not sure why they do it, but I think it's because they are afraid of taking a stand?

Sofa King said...

I'd sooner slash the slash than question the question.

Ann Althouse said...

I actually favor following the convention for the sake of convention here.

But I am finding that I often -- really often -- write questions and don't put a question mark. (I go back and correct it.)

The point of this post is to discuss the issue of why we have the convention.

There could be all sorts of other punctuation marks to help the reader -- a humor indicator, a sarcasm indicator, and indicator of something to be said in a quieter or louder way.

There's a list somewhere on the internet of obscure punctuation marks. The interrobang is one, but others are more obscure.

traditionalguy said...

First they came for the semi-colon, and I remained silent. Now they are coming for the venerable question mark, and I will remain silent.

Once they come for the period, there will be no one left to control written style.

At times writers make a declarative statement and end it with a ?

That's a good way to express doubt?

gerry said...

Hmmm.

You've seen people who use question marks at the end of simple statements! I'm not sure why they do it, but I think it's because they are afraid of taking a stand!

I wondered as a child why most comic books' characters' sentences ened with exclamation points.

ricpic said...

The question is already in the words.

But often it isn't. In fact the question mark is often used, a very effective device, to counter (or at least question) the meaning of the words that precede it.

Gun control will stop future Sandy Hooks.

Gun control will stop future Sandy Hooks?

n.n said...

Presumably to specify intent in order to distinguish between rhetorical and inquisitive written statements. It substitutes for verbal inflections and other hints that accompany verbal statements.

Wait a second. Is your question itself rhetorical?

rhhardin said...

Child: My teacher holded the baby rabbits and we patted them.

Linguist: Did you say your teacher held the baby rabbits?

Child: Yes.

Linguist: What did you say she did?

Child: She holded the baby rabbits and we patted them.

Linguist: Did you say she held them tightly?

Child: No, she holded them loosely.

rhhardin said...

Gun control will stop future Sandy Hooks?

That has omitted an implied "Did you say that..." or similar from context.

Chip Ahoy said...

I'm annoyed with question mark abuse.

"You're an unbelievably stupid man, aren't you?"

)))POW!(((

There's your answer, innit.

traditionalguy said...

Do you remember the John--Martha skit. They only used the two name alternately and told a long story using intonations...that's question marks.

Lem said...

In Spanish there are two question marks... an inverted one at the beginning and one at the end.

I used to hate it because it got in the way of my attempt at calligraphy.

Son estorbos.




Chip Ahoy said...

¿Es la marca de pre pregunta necessario?

¿hablas en serio?

Chip Ahoy said...

I think the regular question mark messes calligraphy and the Spanish starter one abides with calligraphy more easily.

Chip Ahoy said...

Just this morning I asked a friend if they've given up on calligraphy, because I know they have, in an effort to goad them back. I'm fairly certain I'll fail. I miss the careful handwriting.

edutcher said...

tg's right.

It's tough to do inflection in print.

Lem said...

¿Just use the one in the front.

¿How about that.

Lem said...

¿How about that!

Smilin' Jack said...

Omitting the question mark may lead to confusion and lengthy controversies:

Who's on first.

AllenS said...

FUCK YOU?

traditionalguy said...

That was the John and Marsha comedy sketch by Stan Freberg.

Lem said...

Now I just write... letra molde... except when I have to sign something.

Lem said...

What a jerk that Morgan?

Chip S. said...

Really?

Really!

No, really.

Lem said...

I dont use much punctuation here at the blog... it takes valuable time away from slamming the liberals.

Tyrone Slothrop said...

Bending notes just messes up good guitar playing.

Van Gogh used too much paint.

The Nutcracker should be danced in gray tights only.

Who needs that rococo curlicue.

tim maguire said...

I recommend you spend a rainy Sunday skimming The Information. A few too many pages, but a good read.

Question marks are redundant more often than not, but language is full of redundancy. And language that weren't would look quite strange. English would hardly look like English.

Lem said...

Question marks should lead to more action 'regardless of the politics'.

MadisonMan said...

whenyoudonotfollowconventionsbecauseyouthinkyouarebeingcleverornewwaveyoureallyareonlysowingtheseedsofconfusionmydadusedtotextwithnospacesbuthefinallystoppedandalthoughclarityimprovedimissthespacelesstexting

Michael K said...

Sex ?

Oso Negro said...

Ann Althouse said...
I complain about creaky voice. That's something else.

12/20/12 3:46 PM


Yes, you did. I confess my error about the questioning voice.

Chip S. said...

ALEX TREBEK: This law professor has challenged one of the fundamental premises of "double jeopardy".

WOLF BLITZER: ummm...

yashu said...

Ancient Greek (and much Latin) writing used no punctuation and no spaces between words, sentences, and paragraphs either-- so-called scriptio continua.

EVERYTHINGWASWRITTENINCONTINUOUSCAP
ITALLETTERSLIKETHISTHEHISTORYOFTHEI
NVENTIONOFPUNCTUATIONMARKSOVERCENTU
RIESISPRETTYINTERESTINGONEISSTRUCKB
YTHEARBITRARINESSANDCONTINGENCYOFSU
CHCONVENTIONSWHICHNOWSEEMNATURALNEC
ESSARYANDESSENTIALITSFUNTOMUSEONWHA
TPUNCTUATIONMARKSYOUWOULDINVENTINST
EADISUPPOSEEMOTICONSARETHEINVENTEDP
UNCTUATIONMARKSOFOURTIMEININTERNETV
ERNACULARTHOUGHTHENAGAINTHEYAREACRO
SSBETWEENPICTOGRAMSANDPUNCTUATIONAR
ENTTHEY

ambienisevil said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dante said...

the biggest waste of time is capital letters. all those rules, and for what. kids have to learn a total of 52 symbols to learn how to read. then there are cursive capital letters.

of course, it's not as bad as in china. it requires roughly 17000 distinct symbols to be able to read the newspaper. college requires more. so it's not so bad.

however, the question mark can be used as a rhetorical device. sometimes i use it to pose a question as a statement. for example:

isn't it ridiculous to expect political leaders to understand biology, in depth, especially when the scientific community doesn't know. shouldn't these facts stop mass meddling across the us by michelle obamao?

Palladian said...

My favorite typographical character is &, which I often read as "et".

ddh said...

Meade . . . . . . . . . .?
Ann . . . . . .
Meade . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Ann . . . . . . . . . . . !
Meade . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Ann . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . ? . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Meade . . . . . . . . . .
Ann . . . . . . . . . . .
Meade . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . ! . . . . ! . . . . . . . . . !
Ann . . . . . . . . . . . . . . ?
Meade . . . . . . . !
Ann . . . . . . . !
Zeus ! ! !

whswhs said...

You think we don't need question marks.

I imagined saying that with a slight rising intonation on the end of the sentence; that is, I was asking if that is really what you believe. But punctuated with a full stop, it is indistinguishable from an assertion about what you believe (which thus may or may not be true, and at least is putting words in your fingers).

You see the difference.

In other cases, a question mark is redundant. But there's nothing wrong with redundancy! It's an error-minimizing feature in messages. Professional editors often strive to get rid of every bit of redundancy in a text, but writers and, even more, speakers keep putting it back in.

EnigmatiCore said...

Sometimes, a statement can be taken one way (perhaps, of confidence of certainty on behalf of the speaker) with a period, but as an offer of a possible example (sans confidence by the speaker that it actually works in that regard) with a question mark?

Kirk Parker said...

IFWEWEREREALMENSORRYALTHOUSE
DIDSTNEICNALAEREHTYAWEHTTIODDEW

Jay Vogt said...

. . . "Althouse: "Why are question marks really needed.""

Because then the "Mysterians" would just be a backup band.

Jay Vogt said...

. . . "Althouse: "Why are question marks really needed.""

Because then the "Mysterians" would just be a backup band.

kentuckyliz said...

I like the interrabang. It is sex.

It combines the female curviness of the question mark, the Mae West of punctuation...

with the ramrod straight male assertive passion of the exclamation point.

Combined into one, like the beast with two backs.

Look at it long enough and you hear the moaning.

gemma said...

You have always been and will always be such a rebel.

Chip Ahoy said...

If u+person th+ink+head Ing+ish+language is multiples+multiples then+compare u+person th+ink+head+future red+land+egypt is multiple+multiple+multiples.

jr565 said...

Why periods, commas or apostrophes?
Or rather, "why periods commas or apostrophes"

Ignorance is Bliss said...

Or, for double the fun:

¿Por qué los signos de interrogación realmente necesario?

Big Mike said...

It's the difference between Oh. Oh! and Oh?

Luther said...

kentuckyliz, please excuse me.

But there is no question, mark or other, that you are not definitive.

Unknown said...

speaking of punctuation, many years ago, i came across the following series of words. you are supposed to supply punctuations so that a series of small statements ensued. you may decide if you think the question mark is needed.
THATTHATISISTHATTHATISNOTISNOTTHATTHATISISNOTTHATTHATISNOTISTHATITITIS

Kevin Walsh said...

What would these guys do.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vA5bid5F2CE

Paco Wové said...

sarcasm mark

A terrible idea, IMO. The essence of sarcasm is the tension between what is said and what is meant. Putting a marker on it is like having somebody dig you in the ribs after every joke they tell. Hey, I'm being SARCASTIC here! Didja get my joke? Didja, huh? Didja didja?

DCS said...

Question marks are needed so text messages can contain remarks like WTF??????

Astro said...

Question marks are needed (these days especially) to distinguish real questions from the non-questions that crop-up in the way some people talk, mainly young women from my observations.
You hear a conversation like:

"So I was talking to my cousin the other day?
And she was thinking about getting a new car?
So I said what kind, and she says she's not sure.
Then I saw this commercial?
It's for this new version of the Mini-Cooper?
..."

And you just know that the listener is bobbing her head up and down adding a visual 'yes' in response to these non-questions.

Astro said...

Just to add:
If you think standard punctuation isn't needed try reading 'Cry, The Beloved Country'. Gaaad, I hated that book. It was a required assignment in high school, and it drove me nuts.

Methadras said...

Like all symbology it is a deliniater.

Van Buren County Tea Party said...

Some how a delineation of some sort is need in the spoken word, now that soo many younger people end a statement with a verbal inflection that makes it sound like a question?