When I was first learning to read (when the dinosaurs still roamed the earth), all those superfluous squiggles on my page represented punctuation–that crazy set of things teachers were excited about but never made much sense. Dutifully, I learned a comma from a period, and exclamation points from question marks. But when and how to use them? That was the purview of book publishers and grammar teachers. What did I care?
Then along came music lessons, and more squiggles. I started to understand that these marks not only had meaning, but were a secret code that everybody in the world but me seemed to know.
Today, I don’t think much about where punctuation came from, but its importance continues to haunt me, and when I stumble across improper use (or lack of use) of something as important as the question mark, I’m pulled right out of the reading and find myself back in grammar school, raising my hand with an excited, “ooh! ooh!”
Here’s a little of what I mean:
- Reporters are drilled to learn their five W’s, in order to tell a good, succinct story in reverse pyramid fashion. Those five W’s though, are imprinted onto us with exclamations, until, in our sleep we see: Who! What! When! Where! Why! (and sometimes, How!). But these five are truly questions we reporters are supposed to have the curiosity to ask. Who? What? When? Where? Why? They are invitations for others to tell us their stories.
- When someone says, “I wonder what happened to all the cavemen,” he or she is NOT asking a question, but stating their own personal condition, in this case wonderment. Do not use a question mark if you’re volunteering your own state of being.
- Now, here’s a tricky one. Do you use a question mark in the middle of a sentence? Hmm. Nope. A question mark denotes the end of a sentence. But what if you’re writing a story where one character is quoting another: “John says to me, he says ‘Tom, get the wrench, will you?’ and I do.” The big clue is the single quotation marks within Tom’s speech. Tom quoted a complete sentence from his friend, John. Question mark is okay there. If the question quoted had been a statement, “Gus, get the wrench,” then you’d use a comma, just to keep things clear. Tricky, but play with this a while and it will become clearer. Writing is, after all, supposed to be playful.
The next question (naturally), is how to find improper use of question marks, when more often than not the tricky little devils are not there, but some other punctuation mark is. It’s easy to skip over what you can’t see. And Word won’t let you search for a mark that isn’t there. Here are some tips I use:
- Read your work OUT LOUD! At last! An advantage for a lip reader like me. I am incredibly slow, but seldom miss punctuation errors as a result. When you read out loud, you’ll catch the inflection in your own voice that will tell you the difference between “I killed a man,” and “I killed a man?” (Please see the great comedy, My Cousin Vinny with Ralph Macchio for a live run at this one).
- Do a search for any of the 5 W’s mentioned above, and read the sentence around it. You’ll know if there’s a question within.
- Don’t be confused by a request (question) that sounds like a command (statement). “Get the dishes done, will you?” he shouted. The “will you” makes the command a request, which connotes not being prescient enough to know if the command will actually be carried out, even though Billy Bob might smash Nora’s teeth in if she doesn’t comply.
When all is said and done, I hope you have a lot of questions both in and around your stories. When we question, we challenge the status quo. We keep our minds alert for new and different results to our hypotheses, and we stay young. Sometimes it may seem that the world is full of, “been there, done that” experiences, but today is the day someone unique and new to the world is born. Right now is a moment in time that has culminated from all our past experiences, and while we can predict some things, there are no guarantees about the future. Be curious. Ask questions, won’t you? Ask not, whether you’ve seen this path before. Ask rather, what adventures lay ahead on this path I take today?