Are you wondering if you’re wondering or are you actually wondering?

by Eszter Hargittai on April 9, 2009

Too often I encounter the following kind of sentence: “I’m wondering if people could improve their grammar?”

One of my pet peeves is when people put question marks at the end of sentences beginning with “I wonder if”. I’m always left wondering if the person is wondering about whether they’re wondering. (Of course, chances are they are not, but why the question mark then?) This is an incredibly common mistake for reasons not clear to me.

To clarify: starting a sentence with “I wonder if” usually results in a statement and statements don’t come with question marks. If you want to make it a question, you can say “I wonder: how does one end this sentence?” or “I wonder, should there be a question mark at the end of this sentence?”, but “I wonder if there should be a question mark at the end of this sentence.” should not end with a question mark, unless you are asking whether it is something you’re wondering about (but frankly, most people won’t be able to help you answer that).

{ 73 comments }

1

Witt 04.09.09 at 7:50 pm

Are you seeing this in print or just hearing it? If it’s in print, that’s a new one on me. I have very rarely seen that type of error written out.

If it’s just in speech, I tend to attribute it to an (American) socialization process that overwhelmingly teaches women to phrase their statements as questions and to inject tentativeness at all times.

I guess if you’re seeing a request like this on a listserv or something, similar social dynamics could be at work. People are remarkably uncomfortable making a direct request, and particularly when they feel like a lower-status person requesting something from those with more status. No matter how small or simple a statement is, some people will phrase it tentatively because they’re afraid of getting slapped down.

2

Eszter Hargittai 04.09.09 at 7:54 pm

I see it in emails and status updates and tweets and blog comments, etc. I don’t have a problem with people starting a sentence with “I wonder if”, people wonder about stuff all the time and they should feel free to write about it. My point is that it is a statement not a question so it is grammatically incorrect to end it with a question mark.

3

Gandalf The Pious 04.09.09 at 8:02 pm

I’m not sure why you’re bothered by this particular peccadillo. Sure, the usage is wrong, but I doubt that you’re ever actually left wondering whether the speaker is really wondering about wondering. “I wonder if _____” is an indirect question. Indirect questions do not use question marks, but their meaning is fairly clear even if someone accidentally does use one.

In some languages, it is actually fairly common for an indirect question to be punctuated as a direct question. Speakers of those languages don’t seem to have much trouble with the concept.

Shrug.

4

Jacob T. Levy 04.09.09 at 9:22 pm

Hmm. I find “I wonder if” unattractive at best, question mark or not. “If” implies a “then;” “whether” implies an “or.”

In “I’m wondering [if/ whether] people could improve their grammar,” I see an implied “or not;” I don’t see any implied “then.” So “if” seems improper to me.

You’re entirely right about the question mark, though!

5

LFC 04.09.09 at 9:25 pm

I wonder if you would be interested in writing a post about some other common mistakes. Two that bother me are: 1)Using “I,” “he” or “she” where the object (“me,” “him,” or “her”) is correct. Example: “My neighbor invited my friend and I [sic] to dinner.” 2)Using a singular subject and a plural verb (or vice versa). Example: “The root cause of our economic problems are [sic] overpaid executives.”

6

onymous 04.09.09 at 9:30 pm

I would use “I wonder whether” more than “I wonder if”, but I do sometimes add the question mark, certainly in intonation in speech, though rarely in writing. For me this is a distinction, especially in speech: “I wonder whether X” is a simple statement that I am wondering whether X is true. “I wonder whether X?” hints that I am expecting my interlocutor to tell me whether X is true, or at least to help me think through the issue.

7

onymous 04.09.09 at 9:31 pm

I should add that this is an informal, conversational thing, not something I would do in formal writing.

8

salient 04.09.09 at 9:36 pm

Where are all the descriptive grammarians? There should be buckets of embittered and disemvoweled ink shed on this thread by now.

Too often I encounter the following kind of sentence: “I’m wondering if people could improve their grammar?”

I suppose it seems natural to respond, “Yes, you are, and if you’re that incredulous about it, perhaps you should try wondering about something else for a while.”

9

FRL 04.09.09 at 9:39 pm

That was a terrible post.

10

Eszter Hargittai 04.09.09 at 10:10 pm

LFC, indeed, I find those annoying as well, although I can understand the source of confusion a bit better than with the “I wonder” statements.

I can see playing with the intonation in speech, but the cases to which I refer here all concern written language (granted, not formal writing as per my comment above, but written nonetheless).

11

yoyo 04.09.09 at 10:37 pm

Well i’m glad Salient mentioned it, because aren’t you all just a bunch of wankers.

12

salient 04.09.09 at 11:09 pm

I can see playing with the intonation in speech, but the cases to which I refer here all concern written language

I would guess the writers in question are using question-mark punctuation to intimate those speech inflections.

Eszter, if you have the time and the inclination, I’d like to hear your response to what I wrote underneath the — mark (a few paragraphs down).

Well i’m glad Salient mentioned it, because aren’t you all just a bunch of wankers.

Correction: that statement should read, “Well, I’m glad that Salient mentioned it, because you are all wankers.” (And I don’t think they are.)

To be unambiguous about it, I think Eszter has a very good point here. Refining or modifying or “correcting” our grammar is useful, if the correction helps us to clarify our thinking. I would claim it’s useful to advocate for the maintenance of a grammatical structure, if the grammatical structure contributes to our ability to refine and communicate our thoughts, and the abandonment of that structure would reasonably contribute to greater confusion or problematic communication.

I confess to using the phrase “I was wondering” in speech interchangeably with “May I ask you a question?” In particular, I find myself using this phrase when I’m not fully comfortable addressing a professional from whom I need a favor. When this discomfort is especially strong, I resort to further hedging, such as: “I was wondering if it would be possible to obtain a copy of my W4 forms?”

I can see someone internalizing that kind of hedging, to such a degree that every question comes out as a blurt of preliminary qualifications. The sentence structure itself pairs with a sensation of shame or guilt. This is not a good thing for a person to internalize or apply to general situations. Hence, I think it’s appropriate to advocate for maintaining a grammatical distinction between (1) the internal process of wondering about something and (2) the directly interactive process of requesting something.

The “I was wondering if” question-introduction is a hedge precisely because it papers over some feeling of guilt, shame, or impropriety felt by the speaker. The formulation is probably not very healthy to internalize for that reason, because one is introducing every question with the implication: There’s no harm in just wondering, is there? I’m not bothering you, at least not too much, am I? Is it okay?

13

Xanthippas 04.10.09 at 12:06 am

One of my pet peeves is when people put question marks at the end of sentences beginning with “I wonder if”. I’m always left wondering if the person is wondering about whether they’re wondering. (Of course, chances are they are not, but why the question mark then?) This is an incredibly common mistake for reasons not clear to me.

Well thanks. Now I’ll always read it that way too.

14

Anotheronymous 04.10.09 at 1:58 am

I agree with Onymous: the question mark plays an important role here. It indicates that it’s an actual question to which an answer is expected (rather than just an idle statement) and that it should be read with a rising tone. I not only wouldn’t say the question mark is wrong; I’d go further and say it’s mandatory if the sentence was actually intended as a question. If I asked that question out loud and someone transcribed it with a period, I’d complain that they transcribed it wrong and ask for a correction.

Of course Eszter’s right that this construction isn’t appropriate in formal writing, but that’s not saying much. It’s like complaining that emoticons are a terrible abuse of punctuation marks (all those unbalanced parentheses and misplaced colons!). If I ever see a grant proposal that starts “I wonder if you could give me some money?”, I’ll start to worry that writing standards have slipped.

There is one real error related to this pseudo-error. If an indirect question occurs within a sentence that isn’t intended overall as a question or read with a rising tone, it shouldn’t have a question mark. For example, it’s wrong to write “Eszter wondered if they were actually wondering?” unless you are questioning whether Eszter really wondered that, but I’ve occasionally met people who feel compelled to tack a question mark onto any statement that looks vaguely like a question.

15

Gandalf The Pious 04.10.09 at 2:02 am

Hmm. I find “I wonder if” unattractive at best, question mark or not. “If” implies a “then;” “whether” implies an “or.”

In “I’m wondering [if/ whether] people could improve their grammar,” I see an implied “or not;” I don’t see any implied “then.” So “if” seems improper to me.

You’re wrong. Using the word “if” to introduce an indirect question is 100% proper English. Look it up in the dictionary, or in an English grammar.

16

rm 04.10.09 at 2:46 am

LFC, those are easy. Using I where me should go is usually hypercorrectness. Because there is a common usage error “Other subject and me verb predicate” that gets corrected — “Other subject and I,” you ignorant kid — people internalize the rule “I is formal and proper, while me is informal and stupid.” Using I is their way of trying to get grammar right. The subject-verb disagreement example is about agreeing with the closest noun to the verb, even if it’s not actually the subject.

But, if I may, I wonder if, if this makes any sense to you, you think it might be an idea that some people, if not all, might think maybe that it’s rude to be direct instead of suggestive, you know? I wonder if gender socialization or cultural codes might ever have something to do with possibly sometimes mitigating declarative statements as much as possible? Or something like that, but anyway, I could be wrong.

17

rm 04.10.09 at 2:49 am

Or, um, what Salient said.

18

anonymous 04.10.09 at 4:14 am

I suppose you’re not a fan of mine either?

19

bad Jim 04.10.09 at 4:49 am

I wonder whether the common use of “me” in a compound subject might not be a holdover from Celtic, particularly in the British periphery and the American diaspora. Old tongues there are not forgotten, look away …

The tendency to vocally inflect simple declarative sentences as questions has been noted for decades. The unstated underlying question is “Do you know what I’m talking about?” and the point is to avoid seeming arrogant. “I’m going to see X!” is never inoffensive only if everyone knows what X is. If X is an acquired taste, as is often the case, by inflecting the statement as a question you use the same words but your tone implies “You probably know this, but you’re welcome to ask.”

We’ve got both words and music. The music channel carries additional information.

20

andthenyoufall 04.10.09 at 5:11 am

This tic would bother me in a journal article or a newspaper, but in informal communication it’s a feature, not a bug. There are lots of tools that people use in emails, IM chats, and blog comments that are used to accurately convey the cadences of in-real-life conversation (excessive use of bold and italics; emoticons; repeated letters [as in, “soooo borrrring”]; technically incorrect uses of commas, en-dashes, question and exlamation marks, and inverted commas; intentional misspellings and misdeclensions [to denote irony, as in “I was surfing teh intertubes”]; solecisms; sentence fragments).

In formal writing these gimmicks are grating. In more personal communication, as in conversation, it’s pedantic to complain, especially if you understand exactly what someone is saying.

I get annoyed at people who misuse “begs the question,” but… you know. If I pretended not to understand what people meant when they misused the expression, I wonder whether people would think I was insufferable?

21

rm 04.10.09 at 5:33 am

I’ve heard there is such a thing as non-verbal communication too.

22

Felix 04.10.09 at 9:38 am

As far as I’m concerned, if the purpose of a sentence is to ask a question, it ends/should end in a question mark. If the purpose is to say something, it ends in a fullstop (or other punctuation as appropriate). If the question mark is meant to correspond to whether a grammatical question was made, then the question mark is completely redundant and we might as well get rid of it. Evidently a lot of people intuitively use a rule that approaches this one to a greater or lesser extent.

Opaque rules that require us all to become linguists just make reading and writing more difficult. They’re the sort of thing people who want to restrict reading and writing to a certain class should want. It’s exclusionist and insulting. It adds nothing to the language. And it creates other problems, such as “my friend and I” where “my friend and me” should be used, because people struggle to learn a rule that has no salience in English, and fail to do it right.

23

salient 04.10.09 at 12:30 pm

(salient, do you really have that much free time on your hands ?)

I tried to wash it off…

(Of course, I imagine it took me about as much time to think through and type out my comment as it took you to write, say, this. Frequent bloggers who complain about someone wasting their time in a comments thread amuse me.)

in informal communication it’s a feature, not a bug.

It is a bug, for the same reason the spoken inclination is a bug. It connotes a preliminary expression of apology. Do you want people to feel as though they must preface every request with hemming and hawing and indirect deference to hypothetical idle wondering?

Opaque rules that require us all to become linguists just make reading and writing more difficult.

Okay, agreed, but is the difference between questioning and wondering so opaque?

It’s worthwhile to read over the formulations that Eszter recommended as alternatives. In particular, a formulation such as “I wonder: Does X obtain?” connotes a healthy degree of self-confidence even as it opens up an opportunity for discussion and input from others. “I wonder if X obtains?” does not connote the same self-confidence. The introductory prompt and the question slur together; this formulation implies meekness and some lack of self-assurance.

I would like to suggest (again) that what is bothersome about the “I wonder if X?” formulation is that it connotes a lack of self-confidence. It doesn’t matter whether this formulation is spoken or represented in writing; it’s problematic either way.

24

Eszter Hargittai 04.10.09 at 12:45 pm

Thanks, salient. I think by now you’ve addressed what you’d described above under the —- mark. That is, “I wonder” already implies hedging so I see no reason to do it with additional intonation.

Regarding the idea that this is a feature of informal communication, I disagree. (I’ll also add that I didn’t say the examples I encountered concerned informal communication only, some of them concerned work email.) A statement is a statement and doesn’t come with a question mark, because a question mark is for ending a question.

25

JH 04.10.09 at 1:16 pm

Where are all the descriptive grammarians? There should be buckets of embittered and disemvoweled ink shed on this thread by now.

It gets kind of old telling people that think they know something about grammar that they’re complaining about something that is completely picayune and not even really incorrect at all. So I’m guessing all the descriptive grammarians are mostly just rolling their eyes, exhaling raggedly and skipping to the next post.

26

Meh 04.10.09 at 1:51 pm

As others have noted, as soon as you work in an international environment you get used to the idea that few of us are up to grammatical perfection in more than a couple of languages. As such, various quirks are something you learn to live with.

27

Trevor 04.10.09 at 1:57 pm

Here’s my favorite speech-to-page failure: “I should of written my essay more carefully. “

Nothing major or especially grammatically offensive; I believe its just the way the error subtly sneaks up on a language user through speech and then makes its way down to the written word that occurs as both obvious and insidious.

28

Eszter Hargittai 04.10.09 at 2:30 pm

as soon as you work in an international environment you get used to the idea that few of us are up to grammatical perfection in more than a couple of languages.

That’s interesting, I figured it was precisely, because I am not a native speaker of English that things of this sort stood out. Also, just to clarify, it tends to be native English speakers who make this mistake in my circles. This applies elsewhere, too. I seem to be way better in being able to use “whom” correctly than many of my friends who are native speakers.

Trevor, nothing major? In terms of grammar, that seems like a pretty major mistake to me.

29

salient 04.10.09 at 2:36 pm

“…should of…” … I believe its just the way the error subtly sneaks up on a language user through speech and then makes its way down to the written word that occurs as both obvious and insidious.

Indeed, that’s the kind of error that I’d bet correlates fairly strongly with not reading very much. I’d hypothesize a person who does not read much will not have encountered the “should have” conjugation frequently enough to absorb it, and is more likely to attempt to spell words phonetically, within the boundaries of familiar written words. Hence “shood uv” would be written “should of” because should and of are the familiar written words that sound phonetically closest to should have. (All of this is hypothetical, mind you.)

One reason for correcting these errors, even if they’re innocuous from the standpoint of strict interpretation-of-what-the-writer-meant, is that these categories of errors mark someone as “uneducated” to those who are familiar with the prescriptively correct conjugation. (…speaking as a teacher now…) If we want to ensure our students have the greatest range of opportunities open to them in this non-ideal world, it’s important to help them avoid the kinds of “marking errors” that might reflect poorly on them and thus limit the availability of satisfying life opportunities.

Descriptivists may read “errors” in the above paragraph as shorthand for “deviation from grammatical norms of the elite class” insofar as they prefer not to misinterpret me.

30

bianca steele 04.10.09 at 2:41 pm

Ezster,
I tried to make a list of all the factors I thought might come into play, but it’s much too complicated: matter for a novel, not a comment on a blog post, I think. Here’s what I think:
i- If you think that’s what they’re saying, and you know them well and they seem to be pretty consistent pretty much of the time, that’s probably what they’re saying.
ii- It’s entirely possible they’re so insensitive to social context and what words normally mean that they have no idea whatever what they’re literally saying. It’s also possible — I’m not saying it is so in your situation — that the environment is dysfunctional and they’ve developed only semi-functional ways of dealing with it.
iii- Some groups use e-mail and other electronic messaging systems too much, and haven’t really had time to develop reasonable expectations for what’s going on with them.

31

bianca steele 04.10.09 at 2:45 pm

Oops, I meant Eszter.

32

Trevor 04.10.09 at 2:51 pm

Eszter– I said “nothing major” insomuch as “should of” seems like the kind of mistake which, if you confronted the transgressor with it, they would say “Oh yes of course that makes no sense!”. In other words, a mental typo.

Of course, this brings up the question if poor grammar is designated as mere laziness, ignorance, adherence to faulty habits formed earlier, et. al. Often, poor grammar to me actually speaks to an innate, spontaneous resourcefulness people have when attempting to communicate; a “spontaneous poetics” which we secretly appreciate only in humor, malapropisms, Italian comedy, Freudian jokes, etc.?

I’m sure better minds have elaborated in thorough.

33

salient 04.10.09 at 2:55 pm

It’s entirely possible they’re so insensitive to social context and what words normally mean that they have no idea whatever what they’re literally saying.

I think you mean hypersensitive to social context. The person in question might be so preoccupied with a perceived need to hedge their query, they are ultimately unaware of what they are literally saying.

Also: shucks, I’d like to see the list of factors you’ve compiled. Your statement “the environment is dysfunctional and they’ve developed only semi-functional ways of dealing with it” was especially thought-provoking — regarding what would constitute functionality in an interactive environment, and the role of grammar and communication norms in establishing or undermining that functionality.

34

Trevor 04.10.09 at 3:00 pm

Salient– well put. I couldn’t agree more; ideally, language would be more like jazz music. People would improvise in solo, come together in chorus, vamp while others take their turn. Referring to the ‘text’ though, people do use ‘deviation’ as a status marker, so it would be important to educate others in order to defend themselves (and perhaps prevent snobbishness down the road?).

35

salient 04.10.09 at 3:08 pm

seems like the kind of mistake which, if you confronted the transgressor with it, they would say “Oh yes of course that makes no sense!”

If only this were true…

Often, poor grammar to me actually speaks to an innate, spontaneous resourcefulness people have when attempting to communicate

Deviations from formal grammar can be resourceful. Very much so. Or, they can undermine the speaker’s attempt to communicate or to understand others, if only because the conversation partner must spend additional time/effort decoding the statement.

Authors have manipulated deviations from normed grammar for resourceful effect since before the days of formal grammar. This intentional deviation (when successful) is performed with full knowledge of the norm and the range of connotations that norm carries with it. Notice this requires the author to have familiarity with the normed grammar itself, to ensure their deviation is likely to have a desired effect.

Demonstrable unfamiliarity with the norms, however, marks a person. It signifies in particular that the person was unable or unwilling to internalize the norms of grammar. Perhaps they are being resourceful to compensate for their ignorance — resourcefully reinventing the wheel. Since they’re not familiar with how to write the sentence “I should have baked the spaghetti,” they resort to representation of the phonetics in terms of known words. “I should of baked the spageti.”

Witnessing this is rather like watching someone sum up some numbers by making rows of X’s on a paper and then counting them: we might respond, “ingenious approach, sure, but don’t they know how to add?”

36

bianca steele 04.10.09 at 3:23 pm

salient@32: “I think you mean hypersensitive to social context.”

No, I think you may have misread what I was saying. Also, what you’ve assumed is the problem may or may not have anything to do with what actually is the problem.

37

Trevor 04.10.09 at 3:40 pm

Yet saying “I should of baked the spaghetti,” in lieu of “I should have baked the spaghetti,” speaks to a certain conformity, a good faith, a mimicking of the rules of grammar; its where writing takes place this person is found out as a fraud, whether or not they always knew it.

Thus, they were “able” and “willing” to internalize the norms of grammar; the technicality of writing proved to be a troublesome step.

Reminds me when I was a kid, for years I believed the villain from Star Wars was “Dark Vader”. When I realized it was “Darth Vader”, I greatly preferred my own colorful and moreover entirely apt invention of the name.

I mean come on, “Darth”?

38

salient 04.10.09 at 3:52 pm

No, I think you may have misread what I was saying.

I think so, but after a rereading, I’m still not sure I understand what you intended. Could you explain further / offer an example?

39

Eszter Hargittai 04.10.09 at 4:06 pm

Some of the points people are bringing up raise a much higher-level question: what’s the point of having rules of grammar (including, say, correct spelling)? I think Salient, above, addresses at least some of the reasons. If you agree that there is a point to having an agreed-upon (or at least widely accepted) set of rules then it’s difficult to argue for having question marks at the end of sentences that concern statements not questions.

40

AC 04.10.09 at 4:06 pm

I wonder if anyone else is bothered by the “try and” construction? For example, “I will try and have the papers graded by Friday?” or “Try and get the supplies for under $30.” It’s not as if “try and” is any easier to speak or write than “try to”, so I really don’t understand why it is so common.

On second thought, I’m sure that I wonder whether anyone else is bothered by the “try and” construction.

41

bianca steele 04.10.09 at 4:41 pm

salient: C’mon, now. Can I take your interest as an indication you’ll want the novel when it comes out (mine or Eszter’s)?

Eszter raised two questions: Is “I wonder if . . . ?” acceptable in English? Is the person wondering whether they are wondering? I think the first question has been answered already in this thread. As for the second question, my answer is, as I suggested, I don’t know. I don’t know who’s saying that. Is it a peer to his or her peers? Is it an authority figure from a different organization? A woman or a man? What I do know is that Eszter recently began working in New England, and New England conversational patterns have been considered confusing by people in other parts of the country. I’m an outsider myself, so I doubly don’t know.

42

salient 04.10.09 at 4:52 pm

Can I take your interest as an indication you’ll want the novel when it comes out

Sure. And can you somehow work Lewd and Prude into it?

As for the second question, my answer is, as I suggested, I don’t know.

Oh, okay. I interpreted this second question as rhetorical (and therefore as mildly sarcastic). Your i, ii, iii make sense now.

43

dave 04.10.09 at 5:32 pm

Any ‘descriptive grammarians’ should try decoding student essays some time. You’ll soon realise that there remain a near-infinity of ways to be just plain nonsensical…

44

Bloix 04.10.09 at 5:43 pm

So you’re writing an email to someone in a superior position, or to someone you don’t know very well in co-equal position, and you’re asking the person to do something that he or she doesn’t have to do:

“Please send the draft by Tuesday.” Hmm, that’s rude, as if I were the boss.

“Would you please send the draft by Tuesday?” Still sort of bossy.

“I wonder if you could send the draft by Tuesday.” Now I’m not asking for a response.

“I wonder if you could send the draft by Tuesday?” There we are – polite but clear. Not grammatically correct, but there you are.

I personally wouldn’t do it, but I can see why someone might. If the people you get this from are students, Eszter, what they’re signalling to you is their recognition of their subservient status. Don’t be too hard on them.

45

Felix 04.10.09 at 5:58 pm

Eszter asserts:

If you agree that there is a point to having an agreed-upon (or at least widely accepted) set of rules then it’s difficult to argue for having question marks at the end of sentences that concern statements not questions.

This is not true at all. The point of having an agreed-upon set of rules is to ensure communication is as effective as possible. If the opinion of the masses is that question marks should go at the end of a sentence that expresses a question, regardless of the grammatical structure of the sentence, then using the question mark according to these rules is much more effective. Furthermore, given that especially today most of what we write and most of what we read is transient and not intended to be read in twenty years time, there’s absolutely no reason not to allow the rules to update themselves for each generation.

Otherwise, after long enough, you end up with the written language and the spoken language being irreconcilably different. And that helps no-one.

Also, Eszter, your ability to out-do your native-speaking peers wrt “whom” is probably for two reasons: Your native language (Hungarian, I think/assume?) has an accusative case, but English doesn’t (meaning you have an intuition for it but your native-speaking peers don’t); and native speakers aren’t taught this sort of thing in school, but you were. It’s just that some people thought they should insist everyone abide by old-fashioned rules and get people to write “whom”. Now people know they should write “whom” if they’re writing formally, but they don’t know when to use it because English doesn’t use “whom”, and of course they’ll make mistakes.

Also, salient, this isn’t a matter of pre- vs description. I’m as much a prescriptivist as anyone; it’s just that I view my prescriptions as helping communication. I view a sentence like “To whom shall I address this?” as unacceptable in most contexts, because it conveys more information than it should (the social status of the speaker, excessively, and perhaps their opinion of the audience, rudely) and because it hinders communication by requiring people to use structures that effectively aren’t a part of the language. It would also reduce the number of these metadiscussions if everyone just used “Who’ll/Who will/Who should I address this to?”, and these discussions don’t really help the question of addressing letters, so they’re awfully inefficient.

46

Righteous Bubba 04.10.09 at 6:00 pm

Don’t be too hard on them.

Be hard on them at Harvard. It’d make me feel better.

47

Bloix 04.10.09 at 6:18 pm

Another point – Formal usage and internet usage are different. Formal usage uses punctuation to indicate grammatical structure. Whether we use a question mark or not depends on whether the sentence has the formal structure of a question – not on whether it’s eliciting information, and not whether, in speech, the speaker would use the intonation associated with a question. “Are you crazy?” takes a question mark, but it doesn’t seek any information and it wouldn’t be spoken as a question.

In speech, putting aside the Valley Girl phenomenon, we tend to use a rising intonation when we seek information or are asking for an accomodation, regardless of whether a statement is grammatically in the form of a question. Try it. “The train to Baltimore is at 3:40?” Seeking information. “The train to Baltimore is at 3:40.” Not seeking information. “I wonder if you’d wait just a minute while I get my jacket?” Asking, politely. “I wonder if you’d wait just a minute while I get my jacket.” Demanding, rudely.

In a significant departure from formal writing, writing in emails and text messages typically mimics speech, even if doing so means rejecting the conventions of formal writing. Much internet writing is intended to be read as if it were spoken. Writing that adheres to traditional rules – for example, this comment – comes across as stiff, pedantic, and old-fashioned.

So punctuation in internet writing conveys tone, rather than grammatical structure, and is therefore often “incorrect” as a matter of traditional rules but perfectly correct within the emerging conventions of internet writing.

48

Felix 04.10.09 at 7:04 pm

Eszter, I’m sorry about the tone/language of my recent post. On a second read, it was much harsher/more critical than it should’ve been. Beginning it with “Eszter asserts” was particularly un-called-for. Saying “Also, Eszter, your …” was intended just to make it clear who the “you” was referring to, but it reads like it could’ve been meant patronisingly, especially in context.

I do respect you and your opinions. I just don’t always agree with them, and I do strongly think the standard adherence to a conservative grammar is a really bad idea that harms much more than it helps. Sometimes it can be hard to tell exactly how something well sound when you write it.

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Eszter Hargittai 04.10.09 at 8:40 pm

Various interesting assumptions here. I didn’t specify the source of these cases, because there are so many, not just in direct correspondence with me, but in tweets, blog posts and comments, etc. In fact, in such cases, it’s not clear that there is a specific audience so not sure how the relational aspect suggested by some would explain anything.

But no, in no way are these restricted to people from New England. (Also, not sure if this matters, but I learned English in New England when I lived in CT for about 20 months in the mid-80s, I then lived there again in the late 80s and also went to college in this region.)

Felix, I didn’t think much of your tone, no worries. I agree with you that I am more sensitive to something like the issue with uses of “whom”, because I speak other languages. I don’t think it’s necessarily because my native tongue is something else, after all, I didn’t learn that one in a textbook the same way Americans didn’t learn English in a text book. I didn’t learn English in a text book either, I learned it while living in the US as a kid. I did, however, learn German from a text book and there the accusative case is quite obvious (at least to those who learn it from a text book:).

Bloix, people’s standards for what’s rude or bossy are likely different (some might consider incorrect grammar rude:).

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salient 04.10.09 at 8:42 pm

Also, salient, this isn’t a matter of pre- vs description. I’m as much a prescriptivist as anyone; it’s just that I view my prescriptions as helping communication.

I’m kind of speechless… I think that’s exactly in keeping with what I have said. I remember joking about a Mighty Epic Blog War, Battle MMMLXVII, between hordes of prescriptive and descriptive grammarians, but I feel as though you’re responding extensively to something I didn’t say and not responding to what I did say.

Demanding, rudely.

I would suggest, “May I take a moment to get my jacket?” If you feel the need to ask someone permission to act (and yes this is socially required in many circumstances), I think the above line would be polite without being obsequious or grovelling.

If you feel a need to “wonder” aloud whether or not it’s possible for you to get your jacket, there’s something wrong. This is not a question of politeness; it’s a question of reasonable self-confidence.

Try it. “The train to Baltimore is at 3:40?” Seeking information.

Is the train to Baltimore boarding at 3:40?

Let’s see. The “is” as a first word in that sentence immediately prepares my audience: I am asking them a question. They should evaluate the words I say next in that context, long before I deliver any rising intonation, and (if they intend to answer) they should be prepared to respond.

The train to Baltimore is at 3:40?

In print, it’s not clear whether you’re being incredulous or inquisitive. We’ll assume it’s spoken inquisitively. As a responder to your question, once I hear it’s a question from your final intonation, I must re-decode what you’ve said in light of this new context. For a seven-word question, you can get away with this (sometimes) — but especially for longer questions, you will often get a “huh?” reply, and a request for you to repeat what you asked.

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salient 04.10.09 at 8:49 pm

I did, however, learn German from a text book and there the accusative case is quite obvious (at least to those who learn it from a text book:).

I would loosely hypothesize that folks who learn an additional language through text or study are likely to pay closer attention to, and hew closer to, the formal grammatical structure not only of that language, but of all languages they speak/read/write. My only “evidence” for this is unreliably anecdotal; I had this experience when beginning to learn French, which required me to pay close attention to conjugation and communication patterns generally.

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sharon 04.10.09 at 8:58 pm

What is the point of rules of grammar? Well, not to be some kind of immutable sacred text, for a start. Grammar is a tool of communication, that’s all. If the existing grammatical rules of a language fail to facilitate the communication of something that people need to communicate, then they’ll create new usages that break the rules. The useful ones will spread and ultimately become part of the rules. That is not ‘error’. It’s evolution.

Besides, I think the grammatical assertion that Eszter made is erroneous. The question mark at the end of a sentence is what makes it a question, not the precise order of the words in the sentence. English tends to order statements in a certain way and questions the other way, but this is not set in stone. It will reverse the usual order under certain conditions, some informal and some very formal, even old-fashioned. (‘You call this an essay?’ ‘Never in my life before have I seen such a terrible essay.’ Etc.)

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Bloix 04.10.09 at 9:01 pm

I would suggest, “May I take a moment to get my jacket?”

Salient, if a person says any variant — yours, mine, whatever – with a down intonation – the person is being rude or hostile. And any variant uttered in an up intonation is polite.

Eszter – my point is that punctuation in brief internet communications – tweets, emails, text messages – is not the same as punctuation in formal writing. It’s like criticizing someone for not wearing a jacket and tie when dining out at McDonald’s. There are proper manners for eating at a McDonald’s, but jacket and tie aren’t expected.

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salient 04.10.09 at 9:05 pm

Salient, if a person says any variant—yours, mine, whatever – with a down intonation – the person is being rude or hostile. And any variant uttered in an up intonation is polite.

Did I ever, once, disagree?

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salient 04.10.09 at 9:11 pm

To those who defend “This is X?” as a structure for questions, or who see every deviation from current norms as “evolution” implying an intentional and purposeful flouting of a known grammatical norm: Would you please read my comments #50 and #35 respectively, and say whether or not they address your concerns? Thanks.

English has a syntax for questions that is distinct from the syntax for declarative statements, and I’ve put some effort into defending why we ought to advocate for maintenance of that syntactical distinction. From those with the time and the inclination to respond, I’d appreciate hearing why this particular grammatical distinction is unworthy of advocacy and/or should not be maintained.

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Eszter Hargittai 04.10.09 at 9:37 pm

I would loosely hypothesize that folks who learn an additional language through text or study are likely to pay closer attention to

I agree with you, but also can’t base it on more than personal experiences.

What is the point of rules of grammar? Well, not to be some kind of immutable sacred text, for a start.

I completely agree, but this doesn’t address my point in any direct manner.

Eszter – my point is that punctuation in brief internet communications – tweets, emails, text messages – is not the same as punctuation in formal writing. It’s like criticizing someone for not wearing a jacket and tie when dining out at McDonald’s.

Again, you’re assuming too much. I didn’t say I was only referring to instances of brief online communication.

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Felix 04.10.09 at 10:00 pm

Salient writes:

I feel as though you’re responding extensively to something I didn’t say and not responding to what I did say.

I could say the same thing! I don’t understand the flow of your post. You might consider pointing out who you’re replying to.

It is possible you don’t understand what a descriptivist is. Are you trying to describe me as a descriptivist? I am happy to describe language, but I do believe that there are certain rules we should abide by in order to communicate effectively, and I think one is to avoid sentences like “to whom shall I address this?” which are considered acceptable by descriptivists and recommended by traditionalist prescriptivists. But this is not a huge matter, and I would hardly consider one short paragraph to be “extensively”, so I don’t know where that’s come from.

Considering your post 35, it doesn’t come close to addressing my concerns. You seem to think the point of rules of grammar are to prove you can pass some silly initiation test. I would prefer the people talking/writing for me spent their time making sure they knew what they were saying and tried to communicate it effectively, using whatever means are at their disposal, rather than ensuring that every question they wrote obeyed particular structural rules. A proofread is useful, but trying to avoid sentence-final prepositions buys you nothing.

Concerning your 50, it seems to be bogged down in specific examples. I will note that, unlike Eszter, you seem to be making particular requirements of colloquial conversation, which is somewhere in between “impossible to achieve” and “a waste of time”. I’m not sure of the broader point; you seem to be defending traditional rules themselves and criticising a particular idiom, rather than the idea of adhering to traditional rules. English is full of pointless idioms so I don’t think you have a point there, and although some traditional rules are worth adhering too, others are unhelpful to effective communication. This is independent of whether they’re traditional rules.

Nothing you’ve said comes anywhere close to trying to convince me that the point of rules of grammar is to help make communication effective.

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Felix 04.10.09 at 10:15 pm

Eszter,

Felix, I didn’t think much of your tone, no worries.

I hope the “no worries” carries the intended meaning here, and not the rest of the sentence! The expression “I don’t think much of your tone” normally means “you’re being very rude and completely out of line”! English negation has never made much sense to me, but I do obey its commands.

I agree with you that I am more sensitive to something like the issue with uses of “whom”, because I speak other languages. I don’t think it’s necessarily because my native tongue is something else, after all, I didn’t learn that one in a textbook the same way Americans didn’t learn English in a text book.

Of course not! However, if your native language has an accusative, you will have an intuitive notion of when it should be used. Spoken English has no accusative; the variation between “I” and “me” and other pronoun pairs looks like an accusative largely through coincidence. As a native speaker of English who’s learnt another language, I can remember the troubles my classmates had trying to understand exactly what an accusative is.

If your native language had’ve been Vietnamese, which also has nothing like an accusative, I would be surprised if you mastered “whom” so easily.

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salient 04.10.09 at 10:53 pm

Are you trying to describe me as a descriptivist?

No. I don’t know who you are. All I know is that you posted this paragraph to me, rather out of the blue:

Also, salient, this isn’t a matter of pre- vs description. I’m as much a prescriptivist as anyone; it’s just that I view my prescriptions as helping communication. I view a sentence like “To whom shall I address this?” as unacceptable in most contexts, because it conveys more information than it should (the social status of the speaker, excessively, and perhaps their opinion of the audience, rudely) and because it hinders communication by requiring people to use structures that effectively aren’t a part of the language. It would also reduce the number of these metadiscussions if everyone just used “Who’ll/Who will/Who should I address this to?”, and these discussions don’t really help the question of addressing letters, so they’re awfully inefficient.

I didn’t know (and still don’t know) how to respond to it. In particular, I’m not sure why this paragraph was addressed to me. I thought your point in that paragraph completely agreed with my comment #23. What did I say, in comments 1 through 44, that you’re disagreeing with and correcting? That’s been (admittedly) nagging at me all day.

Anyhow, we’re talking past each other. I suspect this is, in part, because I’m implicitly approaching this from an education-theory perspective: what should we teach, what grammar should we prioritize or advocate when teaching, and why? …whereas I think you’re explicitly approaching this from an everyday-interaction perspective: what should we get or not get actively peeved about when we encounter it in casual experiences?

Obviously, I’m not answering the second question. I think you’re not answering the first question. Therefore, confusion on both sides. :)

To sum up: I think talking about what ought to be true about perscriptive grammar is inherently talking about education: what grammatical structures and rules do we advocate, as teachers (or as people who comment on what ought to be taught).

I don’t have anything further to contribute. Have a good weekend.

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PasserBy 04.11.09 at 12:32 am

Another thing. When somebody says something like, “We had some fun today, didn’t we,” I don’t believe there should be a question mark after “didn’t we.” It isn’t a question, is it. Or is it?

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nickzi 04.11.09 at 2:46 am

Ezster, technically, your opening sentence is wrong as well. The correct form would be:
“I wonder whether people could improve their grammar”. Moreover, you don’t have a statement, but an indirect question, after the introductory “I wonder whether”. The reason you don’t have a question mark is because the question is indirect, not because you are punctuating a statement. Also, I am afraid that your concluding examples are direct questions, not simply “questions”, which is why they have a question mark. Overall, it might be a good idea to investigate direct versus indirect questions, rather than confusing the issue by making it one of statement versus question, which simply obscures the issue.

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Kenny Easwaran 04.11.09 at 7:33 am

I’ve often found myself using exactly this construction, with the question mark and then second-guessing myself. I don’t know which way I’ve ended up coming down more often – retaining the question mark attaches it to something that’s not syntactically or semantically a question, while removing it ignores the fact that it’s clearly pragmatically functioning as a question.

Anyway, salient, as regards the question form “This is X?”, it clearly plays a different role from the corresponding question “Is this X?” at least in some circumstances. (I do agree with you that there are some circumstances in which the former structure might cause confusion, but I claim that it is sometimes not just non-confusing but in fact essential.) If someone serves me a meal that I’m not sure of, I might ask “Is this vegetarian?” However, if I know that they understand that I want vegetarian food, and they’ve given me something that looks and feels somewhat meaty, I might ask “This is vegetarian?” The distinction seems to be that in the latter case I know that the answer is supposed to be “yes”, and I’m just asking for confirmation, and conveying my incredulity, while in the former case I’m actually asking a question where I don’t think I have a good idea about the answer.

I don’t claim that this distinction tracks all the differences between the contexts where one uses one question syntax and the contexts in which one uses the other, but it at least tracks some of them. But complaining about the existence of two different possible structures for a yes/no question in English seems akin to complaining about the two structures of “I went to the store” and “I did go to the store” – in some sense they’re both constructions for the simple past tense, so it’s redundant for the language to allow both, but there are also many cases where one is clearly better than the other (and some cases where both would probably be acceptable).

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Davis X. Machina 04.11.09 at 2:09 pm

It all comes of killing off your subjunctive.

Bad move, English language.

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mollymooly 04.11.09 at 3:49 pm

Also, just to clarify, it tends to be native English speakers who make this mistake in my circles. This applies elsewhere, too. I seem to be way better in being able to use “whom” correctly than many of my friends who are native speakers.

Regarding “whom”, are you talking about using “whom” where “who” is required, or vice versa? The former is indeed a common hypercorrection among the linguistically insecure. The latter, and the “I wonder” question mark, are not errors at all, IMO. I wonder whether your status as a non-native speaker is impairing your judgment. (Note I didn’t use a question-mark just there, indicating that I don’t expect a response.)

starting a sentence with “I wonder if” usually results in a statement and statements don’t come with question marks. If you want to make it a question, you can say “I wonder: how does one end this sentence?” or “I wonder, should there be a question mark at the end of this sentence?”

I am surprised you consider the second example acceptable. It seems to me to be no more acceptable than the “error” example. Would you put a question mark at the end of this: “Should there be a question mark at the end of this sentence, I wonder” ?

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nickzi 04.11.09 at 6:19 pm

It’s unfortunate that so many commenters on this thread assume that attempting to be linguistically correct is a matter of insecurity. Indeed, one might wonder whether they make such claims as a way of making their linguistic ignorance seem more acceptable. There is an important distinction between making an error in good faith and claiming that an error is somehow better, despite knowing that it is an error.

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Bloix 04.11.09 at 7:37 pm

PasserBy-
There’s an extraordinarily annoying turn of phrase in England that tacks a question on to the end of a statement in a way that effectively demands that you admit you’re an idiot, e.g.:

“Oh no! I missed my train by 10 seconds!” “You should have been here earlier, shouldn’t you.”

“I’m really full.” “You shouldn’t eat so much, should you.”

“I’m not doing well in chem this term.” “If you’d study more you’d do better, wouldn’t you.”

They really do it. God, it’s annoying.

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LFC 04.12.09 at 2:30 am

To go back to the matter of using “I” where “me” is correct (see my comment @5 and rm’s comment @16):
This may often be a matter of ‘hypercorrectness,’ as rm says. What bothers — or perhaps I should say what interests — me, however, is that the incorrect use of the phrase “so-and-so and I” seems to indicate a lack of an intuitive grasp of the structure of English. You wouldn’t say “the boss invited I to dinner,” so why would you say “The boss invited my wife and I to dinner”? It indicates to me, to repeat myself, a lack of an intuitive grasp of the language. I’m not a grammarian or a linguist or anything like that, so maybe someone is going to tell me that the notion of an intuitive grasp of the language is incoherent or that there is no such thing. It seems to me, however, that for native speakers (or for those who did not learn the language from a textbook) there is.
For example, I like French, but I’m probably never going to have an intuitive grasp of French, because I learned it (imperfectly and partially) in school, and now, when I find myself much later trying to re-learn it (esp. from the conversational angle), relatively little about French seems intuitive to me (some parts do, but a lot doesn’t). But because I’ve been surrounded by English since the day I was born, a lot of it feels intuitive to me, and “the boss invited my wife and I to dinner” seems intuitively (not just formally) wrong. However, a lot of educated native English speakers apparently don’t share this intuition, because if they did, they wouldn’t say it, ‘hypercorrectness’ or no.

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Bloix 04.12.09 at 4:56 am

LFC- this issue was the subject of discussion on Language Log. Check the comments here:
http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=1276#comments

Toward the end of the thread (which was mostly about something else entirely) a commenter named Dave Eddyshaw asserts that in his idiolect, “I” is used only when it stands alone; “me” is the proper subject form in compound subjects. He knows that’s “wrong,” of course, but it’s what comes naturally to him.

So if his instinctive grasp of the language is common, then for many people, “John and I went to the store” is intuitively wrong, and they have to be taught to say it. But once they’re taught, they tend to correct “the cookies were for John and me” to “the cookies were for John and I,” because their intuitive grasp of English tells them never to use “I” in compounds, but their school learning tells them that they are supposed to use “I” in compounds. When they are taught that “John and me went to to the store” is wrong, they don’t understand that it’s wrong because “John and me” is the subject. They assume it’s wrong because you’re supposed to use “I” in compounds. So once they are taught to use it compounds they tend to use ‘I’ whenever there’s a compound, whether it’s a subject or an object. This sort of hyper-correction occurs when people are taught that something is wrong, but they never quite understand why it’s wrong, and it’s common in other contexts as well.

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Keith M Ellis 04.12.09 at 4:56 am

Language is not mathematics. There is no standard for “correctness” other than comprehension. Punctuation, especially, is not some immutable facet of human language; rather, it is relatively recent, evolves rapidly, and is more closely related to the practical concerns of the typographer than to grammar.

A non-native speaker criticizing the supposed ubiquitous “errors” of native speakers is deeply misguided.

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salient 04.12.09 at 2:43 pm

There is no standard for “correctness” other than comprehension.

So, let me get this straight:

Shorter Eszter: “I receive many communications which have this grammatical quirk, which makes it more difficult to comprehend what the person intends to say.”

Shorter Keith: “There is no standard for correctness other than comprehension, so Eszter is wrong to complain.”

A non-native speaker criticizing the supposed ubiquitous “errors” of native speakers is deeply misguided.

Is it correct to infer that you believe all non-native speakers of English are second-class human beings, who do not have the rights to criticize that native English speakers do? I can’t see any other reason for the characteristics you mentioned to automatically imply “deeply misguided.”

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LFC 04.12.09 at 5:05 pm

Bloix @68 — Thanks. Interesting.

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Colin Danby 04.12.09 at 6:32 pm

Re 51 and 55, Perhaps learning a relatively highly-inflected language as a young person changes how you produce complex expressions in your original language. It’s partly about absorbing conceptual distinctions, but perhaps more importantly, the process of learning and drilling and translating requires you to learn native-language analogues of the grammatical distinctions you’re grappling with. My own senses of direct versus indirect objects, active/passive, perfect/imperfect, indicative/subjunctive come totally out of Latin. All of this begs (ha) the question of to what degree these formal grammars are retrospective neatenings-up of the languages they try to describe.

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salient 04.13.09 at 12:53 pm

It’s unfortunate that so many commenters on this thread assume that attempting to be linguistically correct is a matter of insecurity.

I don’t see many comments to that effect. Let me agree that linguistic correctness, i.e. an attempt to use the rules of formal grammar when communicating, has nothing to do with insecurity. I would loosely hypothesize that “attempting to be linguistically correct” usually corresponds pretty well to “being sensibly cautious about communicating in an appreciable way that will be understood.”

I would suggest that certain specific quirks or deviations from communicative norms, such as inordinate hedging, suggest or connote a degree of personal insecurity. I believe this is one good reason to encourage people (within the constraints of social propriety and common sense, of course!) to adopt grammatical norms that help promote preferable characteristics, like comfortable expression of self-assurance.

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