Hearing Punctuation

A blogger at Crooked Timber, Eszter Hargittai, has a complaint:

Too often I encounter the following kind of sentence: “I’m wondering if people could improve their grammar?”

One of my pet peeves is when people put question marks at the end of sentences beginning with “I wonder if”. I’m always left wondering if the person is wondering about whether they’re wondering. (Of course, chances are they are not, but why the question mark then?) This is an incredibly common mistake for reasons not clear to me.

I wonder if this is really a mistake? (Go ahead and groan—you have my permission.) I suspect that the answer to that question depends on a fundamental disagreement about the function of punctuation. For a lot of people, including me, punctuation’s main purpose is to tell the reader how the text would sound if it were heard out loud. Spoken language is primary, and the point of punctuation in writing is to give readers help figuring out how the sentence would sound if it were spoken instead of written.

So for people like me, the way to test whether or not a written sentence is punctuated properly is to imagine it spoken out loud, and to try to discern whether the punctuation in the written sentence matches the rhythms and tones and pitch changes of the spoken sentence. Did I pause long enough between those two words to add a period, or would a semicolon or some other punctuation mark better match the length of the pause? Did the pitch rise enough at the end of the sentence to deserve a question mark, or should I use a period instead? Should the text gallop along with few commas in order to mimic the frenzied speech of an anxious mood, or should it move at a more leisurely pace, with punctuation to match?

For some other people, this talk of “hearing” punctuation may sound like mumbo jumbo. When I worked at a newspaper, the paper’s arbiter of official style once sent around a memo pointing out a punctuation “error” in an article. I hadn’t written the article, but I also didn’t think it was an error, so I sent him a friendly email explaining that the punctuation in the article seemed fine to me, based on the way I “heard” the sentence. Even though I was at the bottom of the newsroom totem pole and he was near the top, he was very nice about my gentle challenge to his authority, but in a different memo on an unrelated matter shortly thereafter, he made a teasing reference to “those poor benighted souls who ‘hear’ punctuation.” (I have a suspicion that he is actually one of us, although he wouldn’t admit it publicly.)

My sense is that people are divided into two groups: those who see punctuation as merely an imperfect representation of spoken language, intended to provide a written translation of the sounds of speech, and those who see it as a separate system of rules and symbols which, even if it is originally derived from spoken language, must now follow its own internal logic.

So back to the complaint from the Crooked Timber blogger: Is it wrong to use a question mark at the end of sentences beginning with “I wonder”? I would say no. For better or worse (that’s a question for another day), Americans seem to be increasingly using interrogatory rises in pitch at the end of sentences when they speak, in order to turn what is structured as a declarative sentence into a question. I have no doubt that people who write sentences such as “I wonder if this is grammatical?” are accurately transcribing the way they would have spoken the sentence if they were talking to their friends. And the use of the question mark seems especially defensible in the case of sentences whose main verb is “wonder,” since wondering is an inherently questioning thing to do.

Hargittai notes in the comments to her post that she encounters this “grammatically incorrect” (her term) use of question marks in “emails and status updates and tweets and blog comments, etc.” In other words, she encounters it in informal writing, where people are less likely to worry about following grammatical “rules” that were drilled into them in school, and more likely to use punctuation that accurately represents the way they hear sentences in their heads.

This punctuation question may be just one little side skirmish in the ongoing war between “descriptive” linguists and “prescriptive” scolds and pedants (oops, sorry—make that “grammarians”). I intentionally didn’t look to see what’s been written about punctuation elsewhere, because I didn’t want to get deep into the weeds on this, but that comment about “poor benighted souls who ‘hear’ punctuation” has stuck with me for a decade now. I would bet that the vast majority of people do use punctuation that they “hear” in their heads when they are writing informal emails, blog posts, facebook status updates, tweets, IM’s, text messages, etc. It is only small minority of poor benighted grammar watchdogs who recoil at the thought of indicating that a sentence is a question by changing the punctuation at the end.

12 Responses to “Hearing Punctuation”

  1. Carol says:

    I hear punctuation whether delivered visually or aurally. (Victor Borge greatly admired but not required for regular communication.) I must be one of your pedants, because improper use of language, of which punctuation is a useful part, grates on my mental ears. Even more so when I find I have grammatically sinned, as you know, having caught me out on occasion! Communication is a slippery tool, but when I hear the kind of sentence Ms. Hargitai describes I do not get the idea that the person is asking a question, either philosophical or informational. I get the idea that person is insufficiently literate.

    You are a nicer person than I am, Dave, but I find it hard to equate the execrable public behavior of many young people, who spread their private matters out for all to see, whether we want to or not, with the kind of nicety you ascribe to their frequent ending of declarative sentences as if they were questions. Perhaps, of course, they are postmaturely immature, in which case I am glad my children are older and my grandbabies younger.

  2. dc says:

    Carol: I think the practice of ending declarative sentence as if they were questions might be more widespread in California than elsewhere? I could be wrong? Or maybe it’s just an age thing rather than a geographical thing? It might be a combination of both? You’re probably ready to scream by now?

    Note that I didn’t endorse that verbal habit, and I don’t notice myself doing it, but if people are going to speak that way, then why shouldn’t those speech patterns be reflected in what they write? I don’t know. I have my pet peeves and my pedantic side too (shocking, I know!), and it’s possible that I adopted a stronger position than I actually hold. That tends to happen when one starts making an argument, and that may be especially true online.

    I don’t know what you mean about finding it hard to equate the execrable public behavior of many young people, who spread their private matters out for all to see, with the nicety I ascribe to etc, etc. Are you saying that you see a connection between anything goes approach to grammar and an anything goes approach to public behavior? Or that you don’t see any such connection? You lost me there somehow, but I tend to get lost easily. As you say, communication is a slippery tool.

    Anyway, thanks for pushing back; I was hoping that someone would.

  3. wordnerd says:

    You mispunctuated “I wonder if this is really a mistake?” At least what I heard was–”I wonder whether this is really a mistake!”

  4. chris says:

    I believe the sentence can be corrected if you add the word “like” at the beginning, as in “Like, I’m wondering if people could improve their grammar?”

  5. dc says:

    wordnerd: Someone else emailed and said that what he heard was, “I won? Terif! This is a mitzvah!” Someone else said he heard, “I wonder: if ‘this’ is ‘am,’ is ‘take’…?” Someone else said he heard, “I wonder: If this is amish cake, then…? I’ve read enough French critical theory to know that I, as the mere author of the text, have no standing to tell people how to interpret things I write.

    chris: Like, OMG u r so rite? Like, I’m pretty sure that adding “like” to the beginning of any sentence makes it grammatical?

  6. Carol says:

    I was saying that sloppy (vulgar?) behavior is frequently expressed in multiple ways. I’m thinking a lot about the upcoming Bay to Breakers race, which comes through my neighborhood and usually with the folks who live here having to clean up after really bad behavior on the part of all the people who get into the race for the party aspect. They don’t register, but they do drink more than is good for all of us, with the predictable results. When they end their sentences in a question mark while peeing on my garage door I don’t think they are expressing polite/deferential/or any other positive attribute.

    At another time of year I probably wouldn’t be making the connection this strongly; I would just consider it a display of airheadedness.

    Chris’s point is very well taken, by the way.

  7. dc says:

    Question marks: the new gateway punctuation.

  8. nnyhav says:

    More signal errors.

  9. nnyhav says:

    again with the signal errors (oops, sometimes punctuation matters, like in html)

  10. dc says:

    That’s the sort of blog post up with which I can easily put. And I notice that he sells T-shirts too—”Better living through syntax,” with a concomitant syntax tree.

  11. avoice says:

    It’s perfectly OK in my book, “Common Grammatical Errors That Aren’t.” This is a sequel to “Hemi-demi-semi-colons and Other Mysteries of Science.”

  12. avoice says:

    I wonder if I could bother you to pass the sugar? That sounds like a true question. It’s just another way of asking if you could pass the sugar. A statement about an interrogatory isn’t one, though.

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