Word, word, word, word, word, punctuation mark. This is how we read. Sometimes there are more words, or fewer. Occasionally additional marks—commas, em-dashes—enter the mix. But that’s pretty much how it works. We read the words in order and then, boom, punctuation mark. We move on to the next sentence. If there is one.
This is how we read! On the surface, that approach seems so natural, so efficient, so beyond reproach. And yet, I can’t help wondering: This is how we read?
Really? This is the best we can do? We’re cool with not knowing whether lots of sentences—“This is how we read,” for example—are declarations, exclamations, or questions until after we’ve finished them and are clued in by the punctuation mark?
I say we can do better. Sure, the traditional manner of punctuating sentences in English works fine much of the time. But flaws in the process crop up. Flaws that we can fix.
Think about it. When you’re reading a sentence the writer intended as an exclamation, by the time the exclamation point comes in, you’ve already read all the information that was supposed to have received emphasis! When your eyes reach the punctuation, you already know your wife got the big promotion, or the Pittsburgh Pirates finally made the playoffs, and you’ve missed the chance to read the relevant sentence from start to finish for the first time with the appropriate tone. A similar scenario occurs with some written questions that aren’t worded in obvious question form. You know what I mean?
The punctuation marks in these instances function like pseudo-footnotes, coming in after the fact to tell you: By the way, you should’ve gotten excited about that last thing you just read, or, Hey, those words you just saw combined to form a question, even though they might have seemed like a regular old sentence as you read them.
Nearly any sentence can be an exclamation as long as the situation is right and the speaker or writer is sufficiently agitated. I went to the store on Tuesday! Lyle is boring! Ground beef! In many cases, until the end punctuation comes in, only the writer knows if a sentence was meant to have that extra flair that an exclamation point brings.
Take Jennifer Senior’s October interview with Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, for instance, in which exclamation points abound. In nearly every case, the reader discovers that Scalia has become worked up only after the fact. When noting that even ladies are using the F-word these days, Scalia adds, “People that I know don’t talk like that!” At the end we realize: Oh, he got a little loud there. But we’ve already moved on! There’s no sense in going back and doing it again with more feeling.
So we don’t. We just plow forward—heads down, inherent punctuational flaw blithely ignored.
Such scenarios are likely less common with written questions than they are with exclamations, but similar problems arise there, too. Some questions read like declarative sentences right up until the end. There is a car that can drive itself? Some fish prefer to feed at dusk? Most people really have no problem with the fact that they have to read many sentences to the very end before they figure out what tone and emphasis were intended for the words they already finished reading?
More traditionally phrased questions present less of a problem, because context cues often alert readers that a question is coming. But while many questions in English begin with a small subset of words—who, what, where, when, why, how, etc.—some do not. And many sentences that begin with those words don’t end up as questions. What fun it was to note earlier that the Pirates made the playoffs! When writing pieces like this, it’s good to have fun. So while context clues can provide giveaways that you are reading a question rather than an ordinary declarative statement, those methods aren’t foolproof.
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