Introduction and question
James E. Clapp
jeclapp at WANS.NET
Sat Dec 4 20:14:37 UTC 1999
Rebecca Meyer wrote:
> In the course of her research, my friend encountered an exchange where
> one party (A) was exhorting another poster (B) to "learn how to
> punctuate". The sentence under attack was structured exactly like a
> tag question, but without the question mark (e.g., "You're a real
> moron, aren't you."). Party B defended his/her punctuation by stating
> that the sentence was an "assurance" and not a question.
> ...is "assurance" a purely contrived label?
I think the word B was searching for is "assertion." In any case, s/he
was clearly just trying to point out the obvious fact that the original
flame was not a question.
I seem to be the only person here who doesn't have problem with B's
original punctuation. The mere fact that an utterance takes the form
regularly associated with questions (verb-subject) does not mean that it
is a question. To say that it should have a question mark just because
it is in that form is the same as saying that the sentence "You're
leaving?" should end with a period because the subject comes before the
verb, even if the intent is that it be read with a rising intonation and
understood as a question.
If sentence-ending punctuation must slavishly follow the form, rather
than the meaning, of the sentence, then it is (sorry for the pun)
pointless. I once worked under a lawyer who evidently learned in
grammar school that a period signifies the end of a sentence, so he
forbade me to put periods after the citations in a brief because they
didn't have a subject and a verb. He suffered, in my view, from the
same misperception of the function of punctuation, which is not simply
to tell us how the preceding string of words was structured (which we
can already see), but also to give additional help in determining the
meaning. One way it does this is by suggesting intonation.
The use of the interrogative form for rhetorical effect in making a
statement--in fact, to make a statement stronger--is a familiar device.
Follett's _Modern American Usage_ gives, for example, "How have the
mighty fallen!" and "What numbers of people attended the coronation!"
The negative form is especially common: "Now isn't that a fine kettle
of fish!" "My, isn't she fine!" And so-called question tags are
particularly common in this sense: "Hot as the dickens, isn't it!"
Now, it is true that most of these forms do invite a response, and could
even be uttered with a rising intonation; but surely a writer cannot be
faulted for eschewing the question mark when the response that is
invited is not an answer to a question but an acknowledgment of what the
writer is asserting as an undeniable truth. To put a question mark at
the end would simply confuse matters: Compare "That's the one, isn't
it!" with "That's the one, isn't it?" Or compare "It is true, is it
not, that one gigabyte is 1,073,741,824 bytes?" with "It is true, is it
not, that one gigabyte is 1,073,741,824 bytes."
It is also true that the conventional punctuation in these cases is the
exclamation point rather than the period. But B's period is gentler
than an exclamation point, less like shouting; and in the context of a
flaming war, any tendency toward moderation should be welcomed.
Besides, not every statement that happens to take this form is so
dramatic that it calls for an exclamation point.
Having come to B's defense, let me say that I wouldn't encourage anyone
to overuse this device. For the most part, especially in formal
writing, it is less confusing and less hokey to put questions in the
form of questions and statements in the form of statements. Most of the
examples I've given would normally be written only in dialog or in
writing that intentionally mimics informal speech, as in a personal
letter. But when such expressions are used, it seems to me that the
punctuation should be the same regardless of the level of the writing.
I cannot see the point of saying that the period or exclamation point is
acceptable as a guide to meaning and intonation in informal writing but
in formal writing the reader should be deprived of that assistance and
stuck with a misleading question mark instead.
James E. Clapp
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