Business communication doesn't use question marks. (?)
March 25, 2004 10:05 AM   Subscribe

People in my company often use a period instead of a question mark at the end of an interrogative sentence. I pointed this out to an old boss as I was proofing one of his e-mails, and he told me this is standard custom now in business communication. Is this so? What the hell?

I mean, most of these damn Business MBA and even PhD idiots can't even write a sentence. Isn't it a little presumptious of them to try to rewrite the rules of grammar? Or is it just that a question sounds "weak," so they'd rather disguise it as a statement, which seems somehow "stronger" to them, like a command or an order? If they didn't also use words like "irregardless" (often in a proud tone that says, "Look at me, I used a big word!"), maybe this wouldn't irk me so much.

I mean, What the hell. (sic)

Not that all MBAs are idiots; present company excluded, no (or at least minimal) offense intended, etc.
posted by Shane to Writing & Language (44 answers total)
No, it isn't. The hell your boss is educationally challenged.
posted by biffa at 10:07 AM on March 25, 2004

Response by poster: Thanks, but, t'aint just my boss, biffa. It's also the high-falutin' corporate headquarters of the company that took us over. They do it all the time. Maybe it's just my damn company?
posted by Shane at 10:09 AM on March 25, 2004

While your boss is a little quick on the draw to call it "now standard custom," he would be absolutely right in observing that it's done very frequently now. I like your guess that the question mark implies weakness (and I would add that removal of the ? for this reason implies insecurity). Also note that comp level and email grammar/punctuation are inversely related. The petty courtesies of clear and standardized communications are below you, once you're at a certain level.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 10:18 AM on March 25, 2004

Can you give us some examples.
posted by iconomy at 10:18 AM on March 25, 2004 [2 favorites]

It could be just your corporate culture, Shane - one person does it, and so other people think it's acceptable. Monkey see, monkey do. It doesn't happen in my company, but then I work in publishing, which generally has a very literate workforce.

Anyway, your boss is wrong and you're right.
posted by orange swan at 10:21 AM on March 25, 2004

Yeah, examples, please. Are we looking for an answer here or just bashing MBAs?

Maybe it's just my damn company?

And hilariously enough, this is declarative, but you used a question mark.
posted by scarabic at 10:37 AM on March 25, 2004

Yeah, examples, please.

Even more hilariously...
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 10:42 AM on March 25, 2004

Response by poster: And hilariously enough, this is declarative, but you used a question mark.

That's acceptible, though: adding the tone of a question to a statement with a "?" I know the rules, so I'll break them with this, with typo's, with "t'ain't," with a series of independant clauses joined with commas and no conjunctions, an' wif any other gosh-durned in-flect-tiation I want!
(LOL. Sleeping with Strunk-n-White under the pillow has to be worth something.)

orange swan, I want to work where you do. I want to be Canadian too.
posted by Shane at 10:43 AM on March 25, 2004

Response by poster: Eh, scarabic's just in a snarky mood today ;-)
posted by Shane at 10:46 AM on March 25, 2004

FWIW, I work for a Fortune 500 company, and we generally still end questions with question marks. So it's not standard custom, at least at one large corporation.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 10:48 AM on March 25, 2004

I think this is an attempt to make up for all the preteen girls? who speak? like almost every other word? as if! it's the end of a question? even when it's a statement?

OK, facetiousness aside, this is the first time I've heard mention of this phenomenon, and it's rightly irritating. I think it's "standard" in the same way financial malfeasance is "standard" now in business. It's not right, and any company attempting it should be punished.

Then again, the question mark is an invention of the 16th century, according to this web article from the excellent website. So perhaps they're being nouveau Renaissance and reverting to the earlier form...
posted by GhostintheMachine at 11:00 AM on March 25, 2004

Hmmm. Like cross-examination in reverse.
posted by monju_bosatsu at 11:06 AM on March 25, 2004

If the bosses where I work try that shit, I'm going to have to disemvowel them.
posted by languagehat at 11:50 AM on March 25, 2004

but languagehat! There is no one true way! It's not desecration -- it's evolution!

posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 12:03 PM on March 25, 2004

Response by poster: (and I would add that removal of the ? for this reason implies insecurity)

BTW, good point, Flanders!
posted by Shane at 12:23 PM on March 25, 2004

It's one thing to take liberties with the english language in a casual setting, but corporate communication is about as formal as it gets. If the leaders of your company don't know that a question ends with a question mark, how can you respect them?

This doesn't happen at my company. Then again, my company makes up words like "boundarylessness" so we've obviously got our own problems.
posted by MsVader at 12:35 PM on March 25, 2004

Each corporation tends to have it's own lexicon and usage idiosyncracies. I used to work for a mutual fund company where everyone said "going forward" to mean "from now on" or "in the future." It was because the CEO used it and all of his toadies and their toadies subconsciously (or consciously) aped him to ingratiate themselves.

Start writing like everyone else. You're not paid to be an individual. The nail that sticks up etc...
posted by Mayor Curley at 12:44 PM on March 25, 2004

MsVader, corp. communication (at least internal email) is about as CASUAL as it gets, in my experience. Particularly with people typing with their thumbs on blackberries, I get a lot of emails that read like a joycean fever dream, except way less interesting.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 1:03 PM on March 25, 2004

Response by poster: ...where everyone said "going forward" to mean "from now on" or "in the future."

That's actually popular here too. I once made a list of overused phrases. "Going forward" is popular because it implies that you and/or your actions are "forward-looking" and "proactive," both of which terms are beat to death in Corporate-Speak. You can also appear thoughtful by prefacing your thoughts with "My comment would be..." Or you can always throw accounting terms into non-accounting language, such as, "Yes, but what will be the net impact of this philosophy?" (Actually, those last two are excusable when used by an older English account, who is really just naturally formal. Nice guy. But otherwise, the whole game seems to be using words that add an air of "intelligence" to your language or put a positive spin on your ideas.)

And there really is a guy in my office who just can't get enough of irregardless. Makes him sound smart, he must reckon.

But my company is incredibly behind on any useful, semi-recent terms/concepts, such as taking an "approach" rather than using a rigid methodology. They really need to learn that one.
posted by Shane at 1:12 PM on March 25, 2004

Wanna solve the problem? Anonymously post "IRREGARDLESS IS NOT A WORD" on a big piece of paper in the coffee room.

You might also do one that reads "QUESTION SENTENCES END WITH QUESTION MARKS."

Maybe it'll sink in.
posted by five fresh fish at 1:24 PM on March 25, 2004

And there really is a guy in my office who just can't get enough of irregardless. Makes him sound smart, he must reckon.

Ask him once what "regardless" means, then ask him what "irregardless" means. Sometimes this is enough.
posted by The God Complex at 1:27 PM on March 25, 2004

One more reason I'm glad to be a freelance worker. [/smug]
posted by signal at 1:32 PM on March 25, 2004

Isn't the question mark redundant, though.
posted by Blue Stone at 1:37 PM on March 25, 2004

That's acceptible, though: adding the tone of a question to a statement.

Uh-huh. Well, perhaps these offenders you mention are simply doing the same thing in reverse: making a rhetorical question, and removing the question mark to indicate tone.

Where will it all end. What the fuck. Why me.

See? It's as easy as what you did. That said, I've experienced some of the officespeak you mention, and it is irritating. The phenomenon of using a question instead of a statement, because one would like to suggest something without having to stand behind it, is the mark of crap journalism, too. I would still like to see an example of what you're talking about.

Flanders- that *woulda* been really good if I'd been discussing clause rules or comma usage at that very moment. It was Shane's unconscious commital of pretty much the same sin that he came here to bemoan that I thought was funny, not just bad punctuation (of which I'm guilty generally everywhere, so there).
posted by scarabic at 1:43 PM on March 25, 2004

Response by poster: That's acceptable, though: adding the tone of a question to a statement.

Uh-huh. Well, perhaps these offenders you mention are simply doing the same thing in reverse: making a rhetorical question, and removing the question mark to indicate tone.

Well, not to quibble with you, scarabic (especially as you seem to be hot on the snarks today; whoa, you're on a roll!), but adding a question mark to turn what is most strictly a declarative into an interrogative sentence is not only time-honored, but it is something of which I heartily approve. I believe in the grammatical logic, of it, especially as we all do it naturally in conversation, indicating the interrogative and applying the question mark with vocal tone.

Also, as MeFi is fairly informal and "conversational" (as opposed to formal writing), I believe this is an appropriate place for this use of a question mark. Not to mention, I would gladly do the same in prose, and not necessarily in dialogue.

You see? I have given a good amount of thought and even analysis to my action, and I believe my reasons are logical and correct. No one omitting a question mark has given thought to their reasons and, as we discussed, they may be doing it for the wrong reasons, or merely parroting the actions of others. In any case, there's nothing intelligent going on there.

I know you're flinging the funny comments around today, scarabic, and I'm enjoying it. But, really, I take grammar and prose seriously, and I wouldn't bother messing with mine unless you have a well thought-out critique of some of my serious writing, which I will always humbly accept.

Just out of curiosity, you wouldn't happen to be an MBA, would you? ;-)
posted by Shane at 2:08 PM on March 25, 2004

Response by poster: I would still like to see an example of what you're talking about.

From e-mails:

Were you on the conference call regarding the new procedure for creating new raw materials for all busnesses except Elastomers.

Could you please fax me a copy of the reports that you are faxing to them to make sure these are the correct ones.

Can you look in your old system and see if you can find this PO and if it was paid for.

Do either one of you have a new price list for CP Hall.
posted by Shane at 2:18 PM on March 25, 2004

Those are interesting. I agree that all four should end in question marks, but I find that the second and third examples are less egregious than the first and fourth. Why? The second and third examples are thinly-disguised requests (or commands, depending on who they're from), rather than questions. Take off the "Could you" and "Can you" and you'd have imperative sentences which would properly end in a period. I still think even these two should end with question marks, but I can at least understand the logic by which someone might end them with a period.

How anyone can write the first and fourth examples--which are both grammatical interrogatives as well as bona fide questions--with a period is beyond me.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 2:31 PM on March 25, 2004

Definitely bad. Whoever this is seems to think that imperatives thinly veiled as questions don't actually require a question mark. Especially the 2nd and 3rd. Could you pass the salt.

The 1st and 4th seem more like requests for information, ie: interrogatives. But perhaps in the speaker's mind, they are orders to render information, imperatives, and therefore in the same bucket as the others. I don't have a clue. It all looks wrong to me.

Anyway, businesses are hardly the realm of Ye Olde Fine English. In the end, you can only advise your boss, I guess. Business does have its own conventions, which change from time to time, but I've never seen anyone do what you show above. If these are simply orders thinly-veiled as questions, then leaving the question mark out makes that veil all the thinner.

Trying to argue grammar with someone who says that his off-the-cuff grammar is okay, but other people's isn't, is kind of pointless. Your boss is telling you that these are accepted norms, but you actually made the same argument in favor of your misplaced question mark. So I don't really see why you think you're in such a different boat than this boss of yours, Shane, who you clearly think is an idiot.

This isn't the most productive conversation I've ever been part of, not least because you can't seem to reply without telling me how snarky I am. It's hard to have a substantive conversation with someone who makes repeated personal comments about one's tone, mood, etc, so I'm just going to withdraw now.
posted by scarabic at 2:45 PM on March 25, 2004

Except to say that no, I'm not an MBA, I have a bachelor's in English, and have worked as an editor, writer, and writing tutor.
posted by scarabic at 2:52 PM on March 25, 2004

Wow...I've just had a breakthrough.

I've replaced my long, semi-snarky arguments to several above errors with this. [via the blue]
posted by rorycberger at 2:57 PM on March 25, 2004

Although I don't think this is now standard usage either, the lead producer on my current project punctuates some questions with a period, particularly "can you do X" questions like examples #2 and #3. He still uses question marks for requests for information like example #1 and #4, e.g. "do you have jury duty this Thursday?"
posted by m-bandy at 3:29 PM on March 25, 2004

Response by poster: Beautiful, shining example:

Can we work quickly to get this resolved.

The question is worded as a statement to imply that it is a command, and the "we" is a smoke-screen implying teamwork, while in reality the speaker will never do any of the actual labor.

(None of these are from the boss to whom I referred, who is actually an ex-boss and a nice guy, the English Accountant I mentioned. He's cool. I only mentioned him at the beginning because he occasionally does this, and I occasionally proof his e-mails.)
posted by Shane at 4:04 PM on March 25, 2004

Can we work quickly to get this resolved.

Reminds me strongly of Office Space. It's a symptom, I think, of this newish polite corporate culture, where it's bad for your boss to tell you to do something, so what are clearly instructions are phrased as questions. The question mark is missing because it's not something that you can say 'No' to.
posted by armoured-ant at 4:12 PM on March 25, 2004

This makes me want to add spurious question-marks to declarative sentences?
posted by adamrice at 4:28 PM on March 25, 2004

Flanders, I was mainly referring to official corporate communications (stuff that goes out to customers, year end reports, memos from the CEO, etc...). The emails I get from co-workers on a daily basis are astoundingly bad. They're not even casual (which implies relaxed standards), they're just plain sloppy and/or ignorant. No one bothers to check spelling or grammar, and sometimes you have to read a sentence a few times to really get the jist of what it's saying because it's either worded poorly, or edited midway without taking the whole thing into account. And forget about punctuation...

When did it become acceptable in the workplace to just not care? (I work in a publishing company, so you'd think people would be mindful of their written work.)
posted by MsVader at 4:32 PM on March 25, 2004

Response by poster: This makes me want to add spurious question-marks to declarative sentences?

Yes, it does.
posted by Shane at 5:26 PM on March 25, 2004

Response by poster: ?
posted by Shane at 5:27 PM on March 25, 2004

In the first instance will we be taking the initiative in driving interrogative use reduction going forward?

That would be a perfectly normal sentence in my large corporate workplace, for some people at least.

I also work with People who use Capitals as though they were Henry Fielding.

I have yet to see the deliberate omission of question marks, however. I tend to think that a) your informant has taken advantage of your anguish of others' illiteracy to pull your leg; and b) there may be a grain of truth in the "order disguised as request" theory.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 5:56 PM on March 25, 2004

Irregardless if what you all think, it's actually a real word. And in a lot of dictionaries. Not the least of which being the OED. It's just one of the qualms I have with otherwise good sites such as this one.
Irregardless originated in dialectal American speech in the early 20th century. Its fairly widespread use in speech called it to the attention of usage commentators as early as 1927. The most frequently repeated remark about it is that "there is no such word." There is such a word, however. It is still used primarily in speech, although it can be found from time to time in edited prose. Its reputation has not risen over the years, and it is still a long way from general acceptance. Use regardless instead.
posted by shepd at 9:08 PM on March 25, 2004

We drive on a parkway and park on a driveway!
posted by kindall at 11:48 PM on March 25, 2004

why do we need question marks when we have perfectly good words like "where" and "how" to indicate that the sentence is interrogatory. by the same token why use any key that requires simultaneously holding down the shift key. do we really need capital letters at the beginning of sentences when the period at the end of the last sentence makes it abundantly clear that that sentence is now complete. i also feel that cutting down comma usage to an absolute minimum would help streamline the whole process don't you. one fly in the ointment is the @ sign, which does require holding down the shift key and without which we cannot send emails at all. but could this be a good thing. if we allowed only one shift key use per day for example wouldn't the volume of unnecessary emails drop dramatically. i'm also having second thoughts about apostrophes. cant a person of a reasonable intelligence discern when a word is a contraction or possessive without the need for that extra key stroke. if youre with me id like to make an official recommendation on all this asap. do you agree. by the way hows the wife. has she recovered from the swine flu and will she be making any more of those delicious brownies we all enjoy so much. nicks also been out with the flu this week but nicks wife doesn't make delicious brownies so we dont care lol.

random thought - if this takes off maybe we could eliminate a significant number of obsolete keys and reduce keyboard size overall freeing up more desk space which could ultimately lead to less square footage required and therefore lower rents. i have a feeling the stockholders are going to love this dont you.
posted by taz at 12:20 AM on March 26, 2004 [1 favorite]

*Burns taz at the stake before she spreads this heresy any further.*
posted by dg at 2:03 AM on March 26, 2004

you could change the shift key to generate "@" (which, incidentally, doesn't need shift on some keyboards - possibly spanish, although i don't have one in sight at the moment).
posted by andrew cooke at 6:44 AM on March 26, 2004

Response by poster: Tangent: Paraphrasing Orwell on language in 1984, limit the language and you limit and standardize what people can think. Cuts down on thoughtcrime.
...just had to throw that in there.
posted by Shane at 7:29 AM on March 26, 2004

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