Indirect question marks?

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Theresa May's 2/10/2019 letter to Jeremy Corbyn includes a sentence ending in a question mark that caught Graeme Orr's attention:

As I explained when we met, the Political Declaration explicitly provides for the benefits of a customs union – no tariffs, fees, charges or quantitative restrictions across all sectors and no checks on rules of origin (paragraph 23). However, it also recognises the development of the UK's independent trade policy beyond our economic partnership with the EU (paragraph 17). I am not clear why you believe it would be preferable to seek a say in future EU trade deals rather than the ability to strike our own deals? I can reassure you that securing frictionless trade in goods and agri-food products is one of our key negotiating objectives (for precisely the reasons you give – protecting jobs that depend on integrated supply chains and avoiding a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland). The fundamental negotiating challenge here is the EU's position that completely frictionless trade is only possible if the UK stays in the single market. This would mean accepting free movement, which Labour's 2017 General Election manifesto made clear you do not support.

In formal writing in general, the standard policy seems to be not to use question marks after indirect questions, such as the why-clause in this case. (Not that I'm any sort of authority on orthographic standards.)

Graeme's commentary brings in "question marks … in speech", by which he presumably means rising intonation, and usage in informal writing, as well as the possibility of a compositional or editing error:

Many people seem to use question marks after declarations, especially in speech, to invite further conversation.   I and others lapse into using them, especially in informal writing, to soften a claim.   But there is nothing soft about the rest of her paragraph, which is highly argumentative.     Is her use a slip, caused by the ‘why’?   Or does it somehow stress that his position if questionable?   Or simply that it was a late night and her staff were stretched?

An image of the letter is here — and here's a screenshot of the paragraph in question:



  1. Alexandra England said,

    February 11, 2019 @ 8:33 am

    I noticed that as well. I wondered, but I kind of just wrote it off as one more of those things about language use where I have to focus hard on not being pedantic. Would be nice if I could relax on this one and let the inner pedant run free :)

  2. Dick Margulis said,

    February 11, 2019 @ 8:46 am

    I think it's a simple rewrite error. The sentence likely began as "Why do you believe it would be preferable to seek a say in future EU trade deals rather than the ability to strike our own deals?" On review, the author decided the other phrasing was preferable but forgot to delete the question mark. To me this seems the simplest explanation. Ockham's Razor and all that.

  3. Alexandra England said,

    February 11, 2019 @ 8:58 am

    @Dick Margulis I hadn't thought of that, but it does seem likely, now you've pointed it out.

  4. Charles Antaki said,

    February 11, 2019 @ 9:50 am

    There's a strong whiff of dismissal and passive-aggressive 'what of it'-ness about the question mark there.

    The current issue of Private Eye has a cartoon (by Desperate Business I think) in which a boss is telling off an underling, on whose desk is a cactus shaped like a fist with an upraised finger. There is a policy of no desk plants, says the boss, to which the underling replies "it's actually made of plastic?".

    Charles Antaki

  5. Alfvaen said,

    February 11, 2019 @ 9:50 am

    I just noticed one of these in the new Harry Potter Trivial Pursuit game we bought. Inamongst the actual questions, one of them was "Name the spell Hermione uses to fix Harry's glasses?"

  6. Stan Carey said,

    February 11, 2019 @ 10:03 am

    This is an error I see regularly in unedited writing, including academic and other formal prose by otherwise fairly competent writers. Many seem to believe that a question word such as why mandates a question mark, even when it's embedded in a declarative structure. I'm not saying that's the case here, but it may be; certainly it's similar in register and structure to examples that I encounter.

  7. file said,

    February 11, 2019 @ 11:11 am

    I cannot see why anyone would presume linguistic competency on the part of Theresa May: she is incompetent in most other aspects of her job; why not in communication too?

  8. austimatt said,

    February 11, 2019 @ 11:41 am

    @Alfvaen "Name the spell Hermione uses to fix Harry's glasses?"

    This reminds me of expressions such as "Guess who?" for "Guess who!" – which is an imperative rather than a question.

  9. Mark Meckes said,

    February 11, 2019 @ 1:17 pm

    My first guess would be a rewrite error as suggested by Dick Margulis. But the mention of "question marks in speech" makes me wonder if the letter was dictated and whoever was taking dictation automatically turned rising intonation at the end of the sentence into a question mark without going back and checking the actual form of the sentence.

  10. Jerry Friedman said,

    February 11, 2019 @ 1:38 pm

    Dick Margulis: I think a simpler explanation, without postulating the extra "entity" of a first version, is that the sentence serves the same purpose as a question, so the author gave it the same punctuation.

  11. Aaron Sherber said,

    February 11, 2019 @ 2:45 pm

    I have a colleague who does this all the time in emails — ends a sentence with a question mark whenever there's question-like word anywhere in it, even when the sentence itself is declarative.

    Also see

    "The all-purpose question. 'Tell me about the challenges you are facing?'"

    Not a question, of course.

  12. AntC said,

    February 11, 2019 @ 3:22 pm

    I cannot see why anyone would presume linguistic competency on the part of Theresa May.

    Indeed. All of her utterances seem to be festooned with qualifications and sub-clauses and double-negation; to the point that by the time she gets to the end, I'm completely banjaxed as to what she's said (that is, if she's said anything). This isn't just in speeches and Parliamentary answers, but also in replies to 'soft' questions, where nobody's trying to trick her.

    I imagine an underling drafted a simple direct question "why …?"; but she wanted to obfuscate it.

  13. Philip Taylor said,

    February 11, 2019 @ 3:45 pm

    Charles A. ("it's actually made of plastic?"). For me, even though it's illogical. that final question mark suggests a rising tone (the tone normally associated with seeking reassurance or agreement, but now a regular part of some young persons' everyday speech).

  14. Michael Vnuk said,

    February 11, 2019 @ 4:57 pm

    I work as an editor for an organisation preparing exam papers for school students. One of our checks is to ensure that exam questions have the appropriate punctuation. A fictitious example: 'What is the capital of Botswana?' versus 'Name the capital of Botswana.' It is easy, particularly for long questions, to change the wording at the start of the sentence, but forget to change the punctuation at the end of the sentence, and so we have a specific check.

    I now find it odd that I have called something a question ('Name the capital of Botswana.'), even though, in one sense, it is not a question. In fact, for many papers, all the questions are not questions, because they are phrased using words such as 'identify', 'describe' and 'explain'.

  15. Alyssa said,

    February 11, 2019 @ 8:25 pm

    This seems to me like a case of informal usage leaking into formal usage. Perhaps accidentally, perhaps not.

    Honestly, I hope this is the direction punctuation is headed. It's nice to be able to use a question mark to note where I would put a rising tone in speech, rather than being restricted to only sentences that are grammatically interrogative.

  16. Adrian said,

    February 11, 2019 @ 9:27 pm

    I agree with Alyssa that actual questions should have question marks, whether they are grammatically marked as questions or not. And by extension, actual non-questions should not have question marks; this applies to many so-called tag questions eg. "That's your brother, isn't it."

    At the same time, Michael has pointed out that in tests and quizzes there is a common category of question that has neither a question mark nor rising intonation.

  17. Oatrick said,

    February 12, 2019 @ 12:58 am

    In 20 years of writing intraoffice emails i found a sentence like “If you send me the days you’re free next week I’ll set up the meeting,” was more likely to be ignored than a direct question with a ?. So i began leaving in (or adding!) ?s at the end of statement-questions. The ? is an extra cue to the email recipient that a response is needed.
    No conclusive proof, but i have a corpus archived … somewhere(?), if anyone wants to analyze!

  18. Philip Taylor said,

    February 12, 2019 @ 5:35 am

    Adrian. I would consistently use question marks after constructions such as "That's your brother, isn't it". The use of such punctuation is supported by (e.g.,) The Oxford Guide to Style ("Hart's Rules for the 21st Century""), 5.8.1, p.~130.

  19. Trogluddite said,

    February 13, 2019 @ 2:03 pm

    While I'm usually pretty strict about my punctuation, even in text messages, I agree with Alyssa's comment that it can be both appropriate and useful to put pragmatic clarity before formal grammar. Such messages, especially emails, may occasionally be a more modern form of the once common practice of writing letters, but more often they act as a substitute for direct speech – what you would have communicated had a voice call or face-to-face chat been more convenient or appropriate, but subject to technological constraints. They communicate in registers which were far less commonly put into writing back in the days of "snail mail" (maybe even in new registers entirely.)

    So it seems perfectly reasonable to me that people have sought ways to indicate some of the unavailable prosodic, or even non-verbal, cues of conversation, and that some of these will be found very useful in practice and gain wider currency. However, I still find them troublesome and jarring in practice, as I'm not immersed enough in them to assimilate them easily, and unlike more formal registers of writing, there is much greater variety in how such signs might be intended and interpreted. It's also true that my background has left me with an expectation that written communication should usually be in a more formal register than when speaking, which I find hard to shake despite all of my preceding rationalisation.

    I'm an old fuddy-duddy, then? (Is this what you think my stance implies? Grrr!)

    I'm an old fuddy-duddy, then! (I realise perfectly well what I implied, and admit that it is true; with a hint of self-deprecation to indicate that it doesn't keep me awake at night!)

  20. KB said,

    February 14, 2019 @ 2:16 am

    Somewhat off-topic, but does anybody else find the usage "I am not clear why X" to be a strange re-working of "It is not clear to me why X"?

  21. Philip Taylor said,

    February 14, 2019 @ 3:55 am

    KB — It did not strike me as strange when I first read it, but but now that you draw attention to it I can see your point. As far as I can tell by introspection, I could happily use either. I shall search back in "Sent mails" to see if I can identify a choice-bias …

    Since 2011 : 6 x "It is not clear to me why", 5 x "I am not clear why", so clearly I find both acceptable and must adjust (whether consciously or sub-consciously I do not know) simply on the basis of context.

  22. KB said,

    February 14, 2019 @ 7:16 pm

    Interesting. I associate it with British politicians of the last few years, David Cameron especially. But I guess it has been "out there" for somewhat longer then. Thanks.

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