Punctuating rhetorical questions

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Kevman

Senior Member
USA English
Hi, all,

KittyCatty's quandary over in another thread (Why "Sense and Sensibility"?) got me to thinking, because I often run up against it myself. Rhetorical questions are often stated with a non-interrogative intonation, and it doesn't seem right to use a question mark when writing them out. Does anyone know of any sort of accepted convention for punctuating these question/statements?

KittyCatty's particular phrase was:
"But of course they are not so clear-cut, are they"

If you put a question mark on that it seems as if you really want an answer!

What's more, the rhetorical question in this case actually occured in the midst of a sentence, set off by commas:
"But of course they are not so clear-cut, are they, as that would make a very boring novel."

This is a perfectly natural and grammatical sentence, but the issue of whether or not to use a question mark here is even more problematic! (Or is it less problematic? Because I must admit the sentence looks fine to me as written.)

Love,
Kevman

Apologies to KittyCatty for using her as an example.:)
 
  • panjandrum

    Lapsed Moderator
    English-Ireland (top end)
    What an interesting question!

    I often use question marks to indicate a quizzical comment rather than a question. I am not sure if this would be considered correct, generally?

    Taking KittyCatty's sentences, I would definitely use a ? with the first:
    But of course they are not so clear-cut, are they?

    For the second, I want to split the sentence, sorry.
    "But of course they are not so clear-cut, are they? That would make a very boring novel."
     

    suzi br

    Senior Member
    English / England
    I think you have to use the ? sign.

    I would call these tag questions and they DO require a response when uttered in converstion, even if only a nod or a grunt!
     

    foxfirebrand

    Senior Member
    Southern AE greatly modified by a 1st-generation Scottish-American mother, and growing up abroad.
    Yes, an interesting question, and one that deals with subtleties like tonal nuance.

    I personally think of a question mark as a form of musical notation to indicate an interrogative rise in tone. 999 times out of 1000 that means I put one at the end of a question-- but sometimes a question mark can give the desired intonation to a sentence fragment or a single word, and it can be omitted from a sentence that looks interrogatory on paper, but is meant to be "heard" as flat in tone, something a little "drier" than a question.

    "Guess you don't end up looking so smart, now do you."

    Like any violation of punctuation convention, this one calls attention to itself, but there are times when it works. You don't usually want the reader's momentum to stop, but in this case it's at the end of a sentence. The word "do" comes off very unemphasized, and the tone of the whole statement is much drier, more understated.
    .
     

    Kevman

    Senior Member
    USA English
    foxfirebrand said:
    I personally think of a question mark as a form of musical notation to indicate an interrogative rise in tone. 999 times out of 1000 that means I put one at the end of a question-- but sometimes a question mark can give the desired intonation to a sentence fragment or a single word, and it can be omitted from a sentence that looks interrogatory on paper, but is meant to be "heard" as flat in tone, something a little "drier" than a question.
    I think this is kind of my feeling, too. As averse as I am to grammatical 'rules' in general, it's good to have some sort of standard in writing. I was almost thinking someone might whip out some sort of Strunk & White and recite chapter and verse, but the range of opinions is very interesting, whether or not we come to any consensus! :)

    There's a Salman Rushdie novel? (I can't remember which one) in which he uses the question mark in the opposite situation?--that is, purely for it's intonational notation properties rather than for marking a question? He ends almost every utterance of one of the characters with a question mark? and it really effectively gives the impression that she's ending every sentence with that sort of ditzy 'Valley Girl' rise in intonation? You know? :D
     

    foxfirebrand

    Senior Member
    Southern AE greatly modified by a 1st-generation Scottish-American mother, and growing up abroad.
    Kevman said:
    There's a Salman Rushdie novel? (I can't remember which one) in which he uses the question mark in the opposite situation?--that is, purely for it's intonational notation properties rather than for marking a question? He ends almost every utterance of one of the characters with a question mark? and it really effectively gives the impression that she's ending every sentence with that sort of ditzy 'Valley Girl' rise in intonation? You know? :D
    Yes, I know. This trend is becoming very evident in spoken AE, especially in the mass-media register-- if I may call it that. There's a standared "interview" style that talking heads in no-content programming and commercials, where the introductory statement (usually a sentence fragment) always ends with an interrogative upglide-- and a pause, as if for the viewer to supply a responsive "yes" to the implied "know'm sayin?"

    In my generation, young people overused "you know" in conversation-- when you think of it, that was the seed of this new trend of offering tentative information in a tone that almost implies the interrogative. In structure at least, the phrase is a question, after all.
    .
     

    . 1

    Banned
    Australian Australia
    Is it not true that a rhetorical question with a question mark at the end ceases to be rhetorical?
    A rhetorical question is a question requiring no response and is used for dramatic effect.

    The placing of a question mark affords the opportunity to answer the question therefore potentially destroying the dramatic effect.

    .,,
     

    Otter

    Senior Member
    English/American
    I recently questioned whether someone writing me was asking a rhetorical question or not. I guess I would like it if, when asking rhetorically, one would not put a question mark at the end. But, normally, I encounter rhetorical questions with question marks.

    Recently I wrote someone that an internet tech person had told me some of my e-mail had 'shifted'. My reply was, "To where, I wonder". Since English is not the first language of the person to whom I was writing, I worried that she would not get what I was saying but I could not see where a question mark could possibly be inserted. (sorry, I know this doesn't really apply to rhetorical questions but . . . well it does apply to question marks.)
     
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