English As She Is Writ - part nine

Questions and exclamations

The question mark

This is easy. The question mark is used at the end of a sentence, phrase or word to indicate that the sentence, phrase or word is a question. (It usually also performs the function of a full stop; but occasionally there may be a question within a longer sentence, and in such a case the question element still has a question mark.)

Ah. But what is a question?  A question is a sentence, phrase or word that implies the expectation of information or an answer. (This rule applies even when there is little hope of receiving useful information in response to the question: ‘Is there intelligent life elsewhere in the universe? Who knows?’ These are still questions, even though we may be waiting a long time for the answers.)

  • ‘You can have tea or coffee’ is a statement: it provides information.
  • ‘Would you prefer tea or coffee?’ is a question: it requests information. And therefore it ends with a question mark. (Also note that it has a question mark even though, in the context of this paragraph of text, it is not the end of a sentence.)

          If in the course of conversation someone said either ‘you can have tea or coffee’ or ‘would you prefer tea or coffee?’, in either case you might in response provide information (for instance, ‘I’ll have coffee, thanks.’) It remains true, though, that the former is a statement while the latter is a question.

In spoken English when asking for information or answer the speaker usually employs a rising vocal intonation at the end of the question. The terminal higher vocal note can be thought of as the spoken equivalent of a written question mark. Unfortunately some people have adopted a mode of speech that produces a rising intonation at the end of sentences whether or not they are questions. In writing a question mark should not be used to suggest a rising intonation at the end of a sentence that does not expect information or an answer.

The exclamation mark

Goodness gracious! The exclamation mark is used at the end of a sentence, phrase or word to indicate that the sentence, phrase or word is an exclamation. It should be used sparingly: exclamations are common in speech, but not in writing. It should not be used to cajole the reader into interpreting the text in any particular way, or for emphasis, or to suggest that the sentence, phrase or word is exciting or important or noteworthy.

It may occasionally be useful, to indicate excitement, surprise or vehemence, when writing a person’s speech or thoughts. Here are some examples.

  • ‘Crikey!’ he shouted. ‘Are all these grapes for me?’
  • Ha! Now I have you, you hateful worm. I knew you would not be able to resist the grapes.
  • He could hardly believe his eyes. The fellow had hardly touched the grapes. Damnation! Why did homicide have to be so difficult?

In general, do without it: when overused it loses what little force it has.

All of the above advice may of course be ignored when writing informally to friends. You can throw in as many exclamation marks as you like!!! (Just bear in mind that ending a sentence with three exclamation marks doesn’t really make it three times as exciting as a sentence with one exclamation mark. Or none.) 

The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.