Wednesday, July 14, 2010...9:58 pm

Subbing tip #10: Where’s the question?

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Normally, the Radio Times is the most rigorously proofread magazine on the newsstand, so it’s a shame that this bit of sloppiness slipped into print.
From Stuart Maconie’s “Maconie’s People” column of 3-9 July 2010 comes this:

Forget what they say about James Brown. Damon Albarn is surely the hardest working man in showbiz?

Whether you agree with the sentiment or not, there’s one thing that’s unquestionable about this statement – it’s not a question. So why the question mark at the end?
Probably because it’s a suggestion, rather than a demonstrable truth. It seems that, as with apostrophes, people are becoming less confident about how to use the question mark, and tack one on the end of any sentence that expresses an opinion that’s not a definite fact. The false question is becoming more and more apparent in modern writing. You’ll see it most frequently in student work, but it’s creeping into published journalism too.
How to tell when a sentence is a question:

  • It starts with a verb (“Am I a journalist?”)
  • The verb starts with one of the five ‘Ws’ of journalism (what, where, when, why, who). Or the ‘H’ (how)

These are the only ones that need a question mark. Full stop.


  • You’re right: Inappropriate question marks crop up everywhere these days.
    I have a theory of explanation: the interrogative intonation so favoured by the under-25s, in whose idiom almost every sentence ends with a rising tone that sounds like a question. I think it started in Australia, but has been enthusiastically taken up in the UK. Presumably the people who do it instinctively feel an urge to use more question marks as a result.

  • Yes – there’s a whole generation of gap-year travellers who sound like everything in their lives ends in a question mark. It’s a vocal tic that seems to seek group agreement or approval for whatever statement is being made. A curious thing – although where the not-under-25 Stuart Maconie fits in with this I don’t know. Unless – horror – the inappropriate punctuation was inserted after the fact by a young sub-editor…

  • At the last magazine I worked at, the deputy editor kept putting question marks into standfirsts where they were followed by a byline, eg:
    “Just where has the nation gone wrong on question marks?, asks John Smith”
    I understand the confusion, but… c’mon, that’s obviously not OK.

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