• How to misuse the question mark (?)

    About the title to a prior post, a reader writes,

    “How to buy/obtain a used laptop?” is not a question, it is a statement. Therefore no question mark would be used.

    About this I have consulted TIE’s staff grammarian (that would be my mom). She rules in favor of the reader. I would like to accept her judgment.

    But … What puzzles me about this is imagining transcribing a conversation in which someone made the statement, “How to buy a used laptop,” in a way that is clearly meant to be a question. Put another way, conversationally one asks questions all the time using non-question grammar and indicating the questioning nature of the utterance with tone. If one were to transcribe such a thing, would one use a question mark or not?

    Actually, what comes to mind here is not a verbal conversation but an electronic one (e-mail, Twitter). I could imagine someone writing (asking), “How to respond,” or “What to do next.” I can imagine these meant to elicit responses, not as the beginnings of explanations. That is, they’re meant as questions with the “am I” or “are we” implied, as in “How am I to respond?” and “What are we to do next?”

    Likewise, I was asking, “How do I buy/obtain a used laptop?” I agree that it would have been clearer to have written that. But what I was not doing was telling the reader how to buy/obtain a used laptop. My post was asking a question, not answering it.

    UPDATE: Embarrassing spelling errors caught and corrected by the staff grammarian.

    • I really enjoyed this post.

    • Does punctuation create meaning?

      If the answer is “no”, then punctuation is useless. The proper post title is “How does one buy or obtain a used laptop”

      If the answer is yes, than an author can boldly flaunt the rules of proper sentence formation, relying on the use of punctuation to communicate the intended meaning. “How to buy/obtain a used laptop?” is an unambiguously well-formed question. Because the punctuation creates meaning.

      • @Michael – You’re right! Or, you’re right? 🙂

        @Aaron G – You cannot be wrong, though maybe you could be if you had instead written, “I really enjoyed this post?” 🙂

    • That looks like a text message:

      “We are going to the movies?”

      I use this when I am asking a question but I already have a hint of the answer (as in it was previously discussed with the recipient of the text message)

      This whole “question/no question mark…. meaning of life” discussion might be a issue of where is the truth. There are three options: reader interpretation, text, or author intent.

    • It depends on whether grammar should be prescriptive or descriptive: People who (wrongly) insist that grammar is a series of rules that must be followed would say that you’re wrong. People who instead argue that grammar is a series of conventions that describe how people use language in the myriad speaking and writing situations that they find themselves in would say that you’re right.

      I would say that whatever your readership would need to understand your tone and still think that you are smart enough to know what you’re talking about.

      I’ll keep reading this blog?

    • I see Michael has already beaten me to the chase in his response: the problem is that you have a phrase, not a complete sentence, and therefore can not properly punctuate it. The one verb in the phrase, “buy,” appears in the infinitive form without a clear way to attach a subject: “How [you] to buy/obtain a used laptop.” You were more properly asking “How should I buy/obtain a[n] used laptop?” Or perhaps, “How would you buy/obtain a[n] used laptop?”

      Of course, the issue you raise in terms of oral versus written speech in the online domain is a pertinent one. None of us necessarily speaks in correct, well-formed sentences: we instead tend to speak in phrases and half-finished thoughts. This style (or, rather, lack thereof) is especially true when carrying on a conversation, the form of communication that social media tends to take (as opposed to a more formal, vertical exchange of information).

      However, I don’t think the phrase “How to buy/obtain a used laptop” can clearly indicate your desired regardless of punctuation use. With or without a question mark, I’d tend to see this phrase in a Tweet as conveying the sense of an instruction guide. Making the question more personal with the subject “I” would inform me that you were actually soliciting answers, not merely delivering them.

    • Here’s the scoop:

      There are two ways you could phrase the title of your post:

      1. “How one buys or obtains a laptop.” This is a title–a statement of a topic. It is not posing a question to anyone. It is telling readers, “Below you will find information about how one goes about buying a laptop.” No question mark is required, in fact all question marks are unwelcome, and if one is used it will lower the writer’s standing in the roster of great writers.

      2.” How does one buy a laptop?” This does in fact pose a question. The dead giveaway is that it actually uses the form of a question. I can imagine using this question as a title. If you write it this way, it says to the reader “I’m asking a question.” If you use the question as a title, the reader knows the answer to the question is below.

      In other words, you can write it both ways, but one is simply a statement of topic, and the other is a question, and only the question merits a question mark.

    • Bloody spot-on, Alan. I can’t help but feel that in the absence or properly taught grammar, a series of misguided rules-of-thumb have evolved over the years, in this case being “if the sentence starts with ‘how’, it ends in a question mark.” Like its apostrophe- and hyphen-related cousins, it is correct often enough to be kept alive, but incorrect more often than not.