Oscars Flub Raises Grammar Question

www.RuthlessEditor.comAlthough it has been a couple of weeks since Warren Beatty’s February 26 Oscar flub, I’m still seeing advice about how he should have handled it. This hit my email box from a newsletter I subscribe to that offers tips and advice for speakers:

The best advice I heard came from Larry King: “Tell the audience exactly what is going on and what you’re feeling.” So I would have said something like, “Now, this envelope says ‘Emma Stone’ and she’s not up for Best Picture. I wonder if there was some kind of mix-up with the envelopes?” Saying it in a playful way shows that you’re bigger than the situation.

The advice was sound, but the grammar was not. Starting a sentence with “I wonder …” does not require a question mark.

If you say it out loud, you probably would not raise your voice at the end as you would if you were asking a question; you’re simply curious or pondering something:

“I wonder if there was some kind of mix-up with the envelopes.”

Now consider this phrasing, where your tone would rise at the end:

“Was there some kind of mix-up with the envelopes?”

I cover this punctuation quandary in a past blog as well as in chapter 54 of my book, Grammar For People Who Hate Rules.

I also included an example of whether to use a question mark or a period on a grammar quiz I offered at a recent Barnes & Noble book-signing event. It generated discussion as well as a certain level of disagreement.

There are times when something appears to be a question, but it really is a polite request that requires neither a question mark nor a response:

May I ask you to please return my call before 5 o’clock.
Will everyone without a ticket please contact the box office by Friday noon.
Could you please send me a list of your core competencies.

Consider how it would sound if you were to speak any of these requests. You would not raise your pitch at the end because you really are not asking someone to do something to which they have the option to reply yes or no; you are making a request — issuing a directive — that you expect to be met.

Have you heard of upspeak? It’s a pattern of speaking more often used by teens and attributed more to young women than to young men. Characterized by raising one’s voice at the end of most statements, it can make the speaker sound uncertain and lacking in confidence. Some think upspeak can negatively affect a person’s career.

I suspect that Warren Beatty wishes he could redo that Oscar moment. I suspect that those who had the revered Oscar statue in their hands only momentarily do as well.

You won’t need to worry about a grammatical do-over if you remember to pause before speaking (or writing) to consider whether what you’re expressing truly is a question:

Will you please …
May I ask you to …
I wonder if …

If you intend for the listener to comply rather than respond either yes or no, don’t raise your voice at the end, and don’t use a question mark. Another caution: Spellcheck might not recognize this difference.

Share this with friends and colleagues so they understand the grammatical — and maybe career — implications of improperly implying that something is a question when it is the opposite.

Kathy Watson
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Kathy Watson

Kathy has a love/hate relationship with grammar; she loves words and the punctuation that helps them make sense, yet she hates those pesky rules. A self-proclaimed ruthless editor, she prefers standard usage guidelines of The Associated Press Stylebook. Her easy-to-use Grammar for People Who Hate Rules helps people write and speak with authority and confidence. She encourages and welcomes questions and comments. (Email)

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Kathy Watson
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