8

I'm sure we have all heard people say questions without putting the tone inflection on the end. I am writing a novel and I have a piece of dialogue where a character says:

“Why are you here.”

because he's exasperated with the person he is talking to.

Is it acceptable to leave off the question mark at the end of a dialogue tag in order to indicate lack of tone change?

3
  • 1
    Instead of asking a question, make it a command - "Tell me why you are here!".
    – sambler
    Dec 24, 2019 at 2:28
  • 2
    This is one of those cases where people may read it wrong either way. Which do you prefer? Them missing it's a question or them missing the tone in which the question is asked?
    – Mast
    Dec 24, 2019 at 9:32
  • 1
    Wh-questions usually don't have a tone inflection at the end anyways. Dec 25, 2019 at 6:05

7 Answers 7

6

That might get corrected to a question mark by a copy editor, thinking it is a typo. Readers might not realize it is intentional, either, and just think it is a typo. It isn't the most effective way of conveying what you wish to convey.

I would reword the question so it is definitely a statement.

  1. I hope you have a damn good reason for being here.

  2. You keep coming here, my answer is no, it will always be no.

  3. I don't want you here.

Or anything along those lines. The lack of a question will also make things a little more awkward for the character being addressed, there is no convenient request to respond to.(Although my #1 suggestion above can relieve that if you want).

8

For me the answer is no. You're asking a question mark to perform a task for which it was not designed.

The context of the dialogue should provide the inflection.

Levininja sighed. "Why are you here?"

Here's an exercise for you, to show why you can't do what you propose. Write a transcript of this exchange.

"Who's on first. What's on second."

Note the absence of question marks.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sShMA85pv8M

5

I am not a writer, but an avid reader.
Contrary to the other answers, I find it quite ok, and it would come over right as you wanted for me. I'm also sure I have seen it being used that way in many books.

4

Of course you can. Orthography serves you as the author in your efforts to accurately convey the narrative. A question mark there would convey the wrong thing.

Not all sentences that start with question-words are questions, anyway. Particularly when the dialogue should not be inflected as a question would, it’s doubly useful to avoid cuing the reader to read it wrong.

You’ll find such things in novels, often with additional narration to affirm what the punctuation is suggesting. Things like:

“Why are you here.” Every line in his body echoed his dead tone. It wasn’t a question, she knew. It was a warning.

(Note that I’m currently writing a novel in a close third POV, so my example is too. Use less reported thought for other POVs.)

4
  • 4
    In your specific case, that might work. But from what I read in the original question, is that it's still very much a question. Not necessarily identifiable as a question by how it's asked, but a question. And questions get question marks.
    – Mast
    Dec 24, 2019 at 9:31
  • @Mast Pragmatically, the other characters will respond as necessary. The mark isn’t there to satisfy a hypothetical grammarian, and this isn’t Spanish, where it alters the semantics entirely. The words are grammatically fine, and merely orthographic rules are least rigid in dialogue. There are well-know experiments that should be avoided because they simply don’t work (e.g., excessive vocalizations in reported speech; multiple exclamation marks), but that’s because they aren’t fit for purpose, not because they break rules. In the question’s case too, a question mark isn’t fit for purpose.
    – Robin
    Dec 24, 2019 at 16:27
  • @Robin Questions (rhetorical or otherwise) require question marks. Your example where you 'tell' the reader what the character is thinking and feeling is the epitome of bad writing in the modern era.
    – Surtsey
    Dec 24, 2019 at 23:17
  • @Surtsey Bad writing or bad literature? The feedback is appreciated, but if we’re doing it right we write for our audience. I don’t want to optimize my writing for the wrong audience, so a critique needs context.
    – Robin
    Dec 26, 2019 at 16:48
1

I've encountered the same issue myself while writing and here's how I've tried to deal with it (options):
1. Quickly establish the mood beforehand: Kyra's tone was flat. "God, why are you here?"
2. Describe the question's tone immediately after before continuing with dialogue: "Why are you here?" she asked flatly. "This is a bad time." (I guess this one is kind of obvious).
3. If you play your cards right, italics might also help show your character's tone, too.
Side Idea: In an attempt to make character voice more unique, I have referred to flat questions like the one you are describing like this: “Why couldn’t you sleep?” she inquires. It’s a question-statement hybrid. Her voice doesn’t go up at the end. Then I could just use that term from then on forward and it would quickly communicate to the reader that the question isn't quite a question without stunting the flow of a scene: “It’s remarkable you haven’t caught this sickness yet. You’re perfectly healthy, aren’t you?” Question-statement hybrid.
Overall, it works for me either way, but the oddity of seeing a question without a question mark on the end can give me pause and potentially put a kink in the flow of a scene.

1

What you're looking for are called dialog cues. They are, as the name suggests used to give the reader cues on how the dialog is delivered.

In your case I'd borrow one of Margie Lawson's examples (quoting "Blaze of Memory" by Nalini Singh) on the link above and combine it to:

“Why are you here?” Tatiana’s voice was utterly without inflection.

I.e. leave the question mark in place (it is after all a question) and describe the voice after (or before, both usually work as well) the line of dialog.

Update: For completeness, I might add that the idea I get is that while dialog cues might be used often, it will of course be very problematic if it's used for every line of dialog.

I probably use it now and then, for instance when the delivery of the dialog is unusual (and that fact is important to the story), when it might add to a conflict or dramatic situation, and when it carries subtext. (Or at least I try to...)

I learned about dialog cues from Margie Lawson's lecture package, "Empowering Character's Emotions". These lectures cover much more than that (it's a package of 11 lectures) but they do cover dialog cues along with a lot of other components in a text. (She also has one lecture package specifically on dialog cues, but I haven't checked it out yet...)

She does cover dialog cues on her blog though. While some of the examples may be better and some worse, the idea behind dialog cues is solid as long as you make them your own.

3
  • Thanks for posting that, I'll upvote when I get a chance. Yeah, it's an interesting option to be explicit with it; it's interesting to see that at least one good author does this. I think for my taste I don't like the verboseness of it; it just feels like too many words to describe something that happens in an instant, so I don't like what that does for pacing. It feels overdramatic to me. Also some of the examples in that article I would say really violate "show don't tell." But I could see that this technique could be valuable in very particular situations.
    – levininja
    Jun 14, 2022 at 21:10
  • 1
    @levininja, you're actually right. She had better examples in her course. She sells it quite cheaply (USD 20 last I checked), but the dialog cues aren't the most important part of that one. A good dialog cue should contain symbolism and so on... one example I can't find now was something along the line of "a voice like spiders skittling over my skin". It's a delicate balance between overdoing it and doing the equivalent of a screenplay with only dialog...
    – Erk
    Jun 16, 2022 at 20:30
  • 1
    The quote is by Jordan Dane, "No one Heard her Scream": “He couldn’t make it, sweet thing.” Low and sinister, the man’s voice skittered across her skin like spiders.
    – Erk
    Jun 16, 2022 at 20:34
0

One of my linguistics professors commented on this affect recently and it made me think of this question, hence I came here to update it with this answer after all these years.

Question marks in English don't actually indicate the mood of a statement (interrogative vs imperative vs indicative), but actually indicates rising tone at the end of the sentence, which is conventionally used to indicate interrogative mood in English, but not always.

Evidence that this is so...

Each of the following are clearly not actual requests for an action to be done or for information to be given (AKA questions):

  • Would you knock it off?
  • I saw Margaret (or was it Mary?) at the liquor store.
  • I put blanks in the gun. Now why would I do that? I'll tell you.
  • The widgets are on sale today for only $999. What are you waiting for?

The following actually are questions even though they are phrased as statements. These are called "indirect speech acts", where the literal speech act is different than the actual intended "illocutionary force" which is just a fancy word for saying, the clearly intended affect that the utterance is supposed to have on the addressee:

  • "I would like a pack of Marlboros." - Said to a cashier who's standing in front of a display of cigarettes.
  • "I'd appreciate it if you could show me some respect."
  • "I need to know where Broom Street is." - said to a police officer standing on a corner.

So, the proper use of the question mark isn't actually to show that the sentence is a question, but that there should be uptilting tone at the end of it.

6
  • I disagree with the apparent suggestion that questions can only be requests for information. Although it is odd that your two examples of "questions phrased as statements" do not ask for information any more than the four supposed non-questions.
    – user54131
    Jun 14, 2022 at 5:34
  • @towr thanks for pointing that out. Yes, questions could be requests for various actions/behaviors, not just for the addressee to give information. I'll fix my answer to reflect that.
    – levininja
    Jun 14, 2022 at 21:13
  • I'd argue that "would you knock it off?" is clearly a request to knock it off. And with more or less of stretch I could probably quibble about questioning one's memory and rethorical questions.-- But I thought of something else entirely: in text conversations, it's not uncommon that someone replies with just a "?" (and thus nothing to change the tone of). So, at least in modern usage, a questionmark is not (always) a marker of an uptilting tone at the end. Though I suppose one could always argue that the way people actually converse is improper :P
    – user54131
    Jun 15, 2022 at 6:03
  • Another interesting question is what a questionmark means to deaf people. They can't be using it to denote a rising tone at the end, because that's meaningless to someone that can't hear.
    – user54131
    Jun 15, 2022 at 6:28
  • @towr you bring up some interesting points. On reflection, I'm thinking that the ? that people use as a text message would probably count as a completely distinct sense/usage of the ? at the end of questions.
    – levininja
    Jun 16, 2022 at 13:20

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.