Is the Question Mark Disappearing

A Blog About Language
April 2 2014 12:20 PM

Is the Question Mark Disappearing

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This is what a question looks like.

Photo by JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

so what's the deal with question marks online is the collective Internet too lazy to use the Shift key does anybody even care

I pose these questions, such as they are, because lately in my Twitter feed and GChat conversations I've noticed sentences that look like the one above. They're interrogative, but they don't end with interrogative punctuation—or, in some cases, any punctuation at all.

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To be sure, I'm not the only one to notice this trend. "are question marks over," Atlantic senior editor Derek Thompson tweeted in February. A 2013 Forbes column about online communication asked, "Who needs a question mark to infer that we are asking a question. Really." As early as 2009, a thread titled "Are you bothered when people don't put question marks at the end of their questions." generated a heated discussion on the online forum SodaHead. "i think some people are just so lazy.... I mean how hard it is to add that little symbol at the end???" argued username Cass, lazily neglecting to capitalize the first-person singular pronoun and transposing two words.

No doubt some people do leave out question marks because they lack the energy, or the patience more likely, for a few extra keystrokes. But the context in which question marks often disappear suggests another explanation: When writers omit them, they're doing so to indicate that the question is rhetorical.

Consider some recent examples from Twitter. Stand-up comedian Rob Delaney mused last month:

On the first afternoon of Daylight Saving Time, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson pondered:

And the morning after actress Mindy Kaling apparently had more than a few drinks, she had this to say:

None of those questions is soliciting a sincere answer, of course. Because tone can be difficult to discern on the Internet, it's useful to be able to signal that you're not actually wondering why you had children instead of buying a puppy or what aliens think of human behavior. Leaving off the question mark allows these writers to wink at their audience without ruining the joke.

Indeed, there are clues that people might abandon question marks for reasons other than carelessness or ignorance. A study published several years ago in the British Journal of Psychology noted a positive relationship between children's literacy and their use of "textisms" (such as "r" for "are") in text messages. A developmental psychologist at the University of Indiana found that college students, regardless of whether they frequently used textisms or not, were equally likely to spell words correctly in an email to a professor. In other words, people consider context when deciding whether to use non-standard orthography. Being able to use it where appropriate is a sign that you understand how language works.

It's also worth noting that question marks haven't always been part of standard written English. According to the Concise Oxford Companion to the English Language, they're descended from the punctus interrogativus, a marking in medieval liturgical manuscripts that indicated the proper inflection for prayers. This symbol didn't become associated exclusively with questions until around the 13th century. And the idea that there should be some alternative form of punctuation for rhetorical questions is almost as old as the question mark itself. In the 15th century, the printer Henry Denham suggested that rhetorical question marks should curve to the left instead of the right.

If the profusion of question mark-free questions online really does mean the mark is on its way to extinction, then Gertrude Stein called it eight decades ago when she wrote:

A question is a question, anybody can know that a question is a question and so why add to it the question mark when it is already there when the question is already there in the writing. I never could bring myself to use a question mark, I always found it positively revolting, and now very few do use it.

But Stein's argument applies only to sentences that begin with question words, such as "who" or "why." In a sentence like "You ate dinner?" the question mark is the only indication that the speaker isn't issuing a statement. And unlike the period, which is also vanishing from texts and instant messages, question marks can't be replaced by line breaks. In situations where the writer actually does expect a response, question marks are still the best way of asking for one. In fact, when people pose sincere questions online, they're likely to punctuate with multiple question marks, know what I mean???

The alarmist notion that all interrogatives will soon be left without their identifying mark—hoping against hope to catch a wave of rising inflection amid a flat sea of declarative sentences—is, pardon me, questionable.

Rebecca Cohen is the intern for the Slate Political Gabfest.

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