Friday, July 09, 2004

4. To Question, or not to Question?

That is the mark. I am not moving through these punctuation marks as quickly as promised. That apostrophe business really took more energy than expected. Therefore, I have chosen the question mark as the next topic in an effort to make a short, yet sweet, entry.

The rule regarding the question mark is simple: if the sentence has a question, then use the mark! The principle seems straightforward enough, but what about rhetorical questions? Some say that a rhetorical question, or most of them, should end with a period; some say that they should not, and some don't care much about these matters. One would go as far as calling the question mark a boring mark. In Gertrude Stein’s opinion, this poor question mark falls into the category of uninteresting punctuation:

"Of these the one but the first and the most the completely most uninteresting is the question mark. The question mark is alright when it is all alone when it is used as a brand on cattle or when it could be used in decoration but connected with writing it is completely entirely completely uninteresting. ... Therefore I never could bring myself to use a question mark, I always found it positively revolting, ... if you do not know that a question is a question what is the use of its being a question."

All of the emphasis and ellipses are mine. It should be obvious that they are not from the original "Poetry and grammar," but with Stein's stylistic experimentation one has to make these things clear. Is the question mark necessary? Was that a question. Was that a mistake. Is this annoying you.

When a question is asked and--the question mark is consciously omitted--the phrase becomes flat. The intonation, that oral lilt, at the end of a phrase is the question mare's raisin deter. I do not find the mark "positively revolting," but it is wrong to always require its placement at the end of a sentence. Any rule of punctuation that unnecessarily restricts written expression should be bent.

While speaking of question mark placement, let us examine the Spanish preference of using two marks instead of one.

¿Do you like this question?


Do you like this question?

I find the Spanish version to be more visually pleasing, but less interesting. Of course, I have not read enough Spanish literature. I cannot positively say that something is lost by immediately being told: this sentence is a question. My gut reaction, however, says that that first mark (¿) ruins the possibility for suspense. It is better to not see the question comming, or to not have the marks there at all, but to have one on either side of the phrase--like bookends--makes me feel claustrophobic. And how can you have an open-ended question when both the back and the front doors are closed?

¿What do you think?


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