Should I put a question mark here, because I think it's awkward?
September 14, 2010 4:31 PM   Subscribe

Grammar question about putting question marks at the end of sentences.

If I have a sentence that has a question clause at the beginning, but a non-question part at the end it feels awkward to put a question mark at the end.

For example: "What would be the point in going, since the whole reason for the vacation in the first place was to relax on the beach?"

I could come up with a better example, but you get the idea. I don't want to ignore the question at the beginning, but it just seems out of place after the declarative clause at the end. Mark or no mark?
posted by zardoz to Writing & Language (15 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
 
Mark. Or split it into two sentences.

"What would be the point in going? The whole reason for the vacation in the first place was to relax on the beach."
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 4:34 PM on September 14, 2010 [5 favorites]


I agree, though in the vernacular it is common to combine both and forsake the question mark, relying on the reader's intellect to discern. This is not always a good idea.
posted by Biru at 4:38 PM on September 14, 2010


Another option is just to reverse it:

"Since the whole reason for the vacation in the first place was to relax on the beach, what would be the point in going?"

My intuition is that the example as you state it is correct, though, as "since" introduces that clause as subordinate to the rest. I think it's both grammatically correct and not at all bothersome to my sensibilities as a reader, for what it's worth.
posted by Rallon at 4:38 PM on September 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


In your example, question mark is absolutely the natural punctuation to me.
posted by LobsterMitten at 4:39 PM on September 14, 2010


Oh, I see. The example in your title is better: "Should I put a question mark here, because I think it's awkward?"

In that example you just need to rewrite a bit:
Should I put a question mark here? Because I think it's awkward.
posted by LobsterMitten at 4:43 PM on September 14, 2010


Your example looks fine to me for casual writing (emails, facebook status updates, text message, etc).

For more formal writing, you could probably stand to phrase things a little more elegantly, such as the examples above.
posted by Sara C. at 4:49 PM on September 14, 2010


Because I think it's awkward. isn't a complete sentence.
Should I put a question mark here, because I think it's awkward? is fine for informal speech, but is an awkward written sentence at the best of times. The rewrite I'd make would be:

Should I put a question mark here? I ask because I think it seems awkward.

All the other examples mentioned, specifically the one about relaxing beach vacations, feel to me like the terminal question mark is perfectly natural and expected, and would read strangely without the mark.
posted by The Discredited Ape at 4:51 PM on September 14, 2010 [3 favorites]


The clause is subordinate, so it does not change the need for the question mark. Either use the mark or re-write to avoid it.
posted by ssg at 4:51 PM on September 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


"Should I put a question mark here, because I think it's awkward?"

This is not a good sentence. The question mark makes it seem like "because I think it's awkward" would be a reason to include the question -- i.e. the opposite of your real meaning. The problem is that you're using a very casual sense of "because." You're using "because" to mean, "Here's the reason I would not want to do this; thus, I'm kind of hoping you'll answer 'no' to my question." We usually hear this in everyday conversation rather than seeing it in written prose. When you're trying to replicate such a casual expression in writing, you have to make an ad hoc judgment about how to cue the reader as to the appropriate meaning and inflection. As LobsterMitten showed, the way to do this is by splitting it into two sentences

Contrary to Sara C., I don't think the question mark at the end would work well even in ultra-casual writing, such as an IM conversation. It creates a Valley Girl inflection, as if you were to write: "Should I put a question mark here? Because I think it's awkward?"
posted by John Cohen at 4:56 PM on September 14, 2010


Lentrohamsanin is right on the money. And his/her priority is right, too: The rewrite option is okay, but a mark at the end is the clearest and easiest solution. As in: Why complicate matters, if you don't need to?
posted by LonnieK at 4:59 PM on September 14, 2010


And yes, yes, they're all right about the title of the post. That's a red herring. Your example question -- the one Lentrohamsanin & I address -- poses the issue clearly.
posted by LonnieK at 5:02 PM on September 14, 2010


I think the two examples you give are actually different cases, linguistically speaking.

Should I put a question mark here, because I think it's awkward?

In this type of question (called a polar or "yes/no" question), the written question mark corresponds to a rising fundamental pitch over the whole marked sentence but concentrated towards the end -- a corresponding declarative sentence more typically has a falling or flat pitch. The major reason the question mark seems awkward is because when you actually pronounce this sentence with rising intonation over the whole sentence including the "because" clause, it asks something different than what you intend (paraphrase: "is the reason I should put a question mark here because I think it's awkward?") If you were pronouncing it, a much more natural thing to do would be to have the pitch rise end at the comma in the quoted sentence, and pronounce the "because" clause with falling or flat pitch, like a separate declarative sentence. LobsterMitten's suggestion is the conventional means of marking this kind of pitch contour in writing.

The "what" question in the body of your post is a somewhat different story, however. In this type of question, unlike a polar question, there is no simple characteristic intonational contour marked in the writing system, so the question mark doesn't correspond as directly to any intonational marking and the pronounced sentence is much less awkward. (In fact, I can tell you from corpus work that I've done that people use right-attached adverbials such as "if"-clauses etc. in "wh"-questions all the time, and in general it is probably the preferred order.) That is, in a "wh"-question the position of the question mark is not about how the language itself works, but a pure issue of writing convention.
posted by advil at 5:30 PM on September 14, 2010 [2 favorites]


I've seen this construction in books something like this: "Should I put a question mark here? -- because I think it's awkward."

The sentence as you've got it written in your title looks like a mistake -- it could just as easily be a misplaced comma; without the comma it is at least grammatically correct although it doesn't make much sense. With it, it makes sense but looks like the sentence of someone who doesn't do much writing

The Discredited Ape's version is the most elegant and understandable.
posted by frobozz at 6:09 PM on September 14, 2010


Argh, I hate it when people leave out the question mark. If it's a question, it should have a question mark at the end of it, END OF STORY.

I'd do the obvious and turn your example into,
"What would be the point in going? Since the whole reason for the vacation in the first place was to relax on the beach."
And,
"Should I put a question mark here? Because I think it's awkward."
This is a slangy, casual kind of construction, but that's okay in my book. At least it sounds natural, and it reads aloud well.
posted by ErikaB at 6:15 PM on September 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


Nothing wrong with sentence fragments. Great literature, well-written articles, etc, all have examples.

Basically, in order to get the grammatical meaning of the punctuation to line up with the inflection that you want the sentence to have, you sometimes have to change around word or phrase order. In casual writing it would be OK to drop the question mark in your example about the beach, since it was a rhetorical question to start with and those aren't typically inflected in the same way. But in general it sounds better with the words rearranged, say, "What would be the point in going? The whole reason for the vacation was to relax on the beach." For your title, on the other hand, it should really be two sentences - "Should I put a question mark here? Because I think it's awkward." At least as I read it, the second half is a response - first you pose the question, and then your opinion.
posted by Lady Li at 7:28 PM on September 14, 2010


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