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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.