Grammar Moses: When is a question not a question?
Tod Kruse has a question about questions.
"Today, I decided to ask you about the use of 'right' or 'OK' at the end of a sentence when the speaker or writer is not asking a question, nor expecting a response. This seems to proliferate in interviews, speeches and general conversations. Help."
Thanks for your email, Tod. Was there a question? You mentioned you were going to ask me one, but never quite did. What tipped me off was the lack of a question mark.
Assuming you meant to pose one, I'll do my best to answer.
As the editor of the paper, I might say to a reporter or one of our editors, "Why don't you write a story about the proliferation of weasels living under people's decks."
I'd probably come up with this genius story idea because I happen to have weasels multiplying under my deck and I want some expert answers on what to do about them but am too lazy to call someone or do the research myself.
I'm not asking a question. I am making a suggestion that someone do something. The higher up the food chain one goes, the more likely it is suggestion becomes an instruction.
Had I used a question mark instead of a period at the end of that sentence, I would be inviting reasons for not doing the story:
"Why don't I, boss?" one might say, "Because everyone is trying to finish their Pulitzer entries," or "because it's an incredibly bad story idea."
Even though there is a question mark at the end of the headline on this column, I'm not asking you when a question is not a question. I'm signaling that I'm going to tell you the answer(s).
I'm very familiar with Tod's example of people ending a question with "Right?"
I can't quite pinpoint the origin, but an unattached thought flitting about my gray matter tells me a teenage actress used "Rye-eat?" (yes, two syllables) as her standard line-ender. If there is any truth to that, I'd chalk up its ubiquity to mimicry.
Often, those who do that are merely searching for a nod of assent. Sometimes, they use it for punctuation.
That goes for "OK" as well.
When a parent says to an unruly child, "Because you find so many excuses for not taking out the trash, I'm suspending your allowance. OK?" that parent is in no way interested in getting buy-in from the ne'er-do-well child.
The "OK" is a way to establish the preceding question as fact.
Stand-up comedians who end a bit with "Right?" are establishing something as a shared experience with the audience.
Questions without question marks, statements with question marks, questions with no interest in an answer: We're not particularly good at following rules and, in fact, we revel in revolting against them.
My advice is to know your audience -- or at least know that a stranger might have no idea what you're asking/telling them about.
Neither this nor that
Regarding a recent column in which I wrote about a caffeinated snack bar that got me through the afternoon doldrums, reader Scott Zapel had a question about my disclosure: "I preface this with the disclosure that I have not been asked for or compensated for any product endorsements ..."
"Would 'nor' have been preferable to 'or'?" Scott asked.
I'm smart enough to know that I am no expert at grammar and usage. But I like to think I've picked up a few things in my 40 years of newspapering, the last eight or so writing this column.
When I was a lad I was taught that "neither" and "nor" go together like peas and carrots, to paraphrase one of our greatest American heroes, Forrest Gump.
What I was never taught (or didn't remember) is that once you've established a negative -- "not" in my disclosure; it's fine and probably preferable to use "nor" to describe the other thing.
However, once you've established a negative with "neither," you must use "nor."
• Jim Baumann is vice president/executive editor of the Daily Herald. You can buy Jim's book, "Grammar Moses: A humorous guide to grammar and usage," at
grammarmosesthebook.com. Write him at email@example.com
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