Guess What‽

31 10 2010

Yesterday I was listening to A Way with Words in the car when a caller proposed a question that’s always bothered me: Why does the phrase, “Guess what?” end in a question mark when it’s really not a question at all. The answer was, essentially, a five minute conversation that boiled down to, “Because.”

I know, primarily from reading, that it’s supposed to end in a question mark, but it has always bothered me because it sounds like a command, rather than a question. “Guess what!” Or, “I’m telling you to guess!” The hosts of the show tried comparing the phrase to other questions such as, “Would you shut up?” They claimed that question is also a command in disguise – and it is! However, I find it a weak comparison because the former phrase isn’t a question on any level. Their example begins with, “Would you,” which does, in fact, indicate a question. Not so with the questioned, er, question.

I imagine the real reason for the question mark is that the phrase is a shortened version of an actual question, such as, “Will you guess what?” Or maybe, “Wanna guess what?” Those are questions. The two word phrase, “Guess what!” isn’t a question, it’s a statement. Its underlying meaning isn’t even a demand, like that of the host’s comparison phrase, rather it is a way to announce an impending piece of news. So, while I submit to the proper use of a question mark, I generally do so grudgingly, wallowing in the wrongness of the punctuation.

During the course of the conversation, the interrobang was discussed. One of the hosts flippantly declared that “any copy editor” would cross out any such mark and replace it with merely a question mark. Has our society become so jaded that there is no longer any excitement to questions?* Well, I declare that when I release my book, I will include interrobangs. No copy editors dare cross me and my quest to bring back retro punctuation.**

So what are your thoughts? Do you agree with me, or can you offer an alternate point of view? I’m considering sending this in to the show, but if it turns out I’m wrong, I’ll probably just delete this entry.***

*That’s a joke. In case you couldn’t tell.
**That’s totally not a joke.
***Joking again.

This entry is dedicated to Bethany. Particularly the bits about the interrobang.

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8 responses

31 10 2010
bethany actually

I’m honored to have this post dedicated to me. 🙂

And guess what! I’ve long since decided that the phrase “guess what” is a command rather than a question. I almost always write it with an exclamation mark (to indicate excitement), period or ellipsis.

My 12th-grade AP English teacher told us over and over again that the beauty of the English language is that usage dictates definition. Snobs can argue that verbing nouns is “improper” but I would argue that it hows how user-friendly and adaptable our language is. English is a rich, vibrant language because it’s always been happy to adopt words from other languages, and to change the forms of long-existing words as well as definitions. (See the history of the word “nice” for just one well-known example.)

I am a grammar/spelling/punctuation fiend because I believe using the commonly-accepted formats promotes clarity and avoids miscommunication. But I try not to be a snob, especially when it comes to logical and/or fun punctuation. 🙂

31 10 2010
ZebraBelly

I often change the rules of punctuation, too, when I think they are stupid. Like when one word is in quotes at the end of a sentence, I think it looks awkward to stick the punctuation inside the quotes so I don’t. If it’s an entire sentence in quotes it looks fine, of course.

But when I do things like that I worry that people assume I just don’t know and since it’s very hard to clarify things online I get insecure about doing things like that.

I don’t know why it’s never occurred to me to do this with the phrase “Guess What?” but it hasn’t – I just follow the rules on that one without considering rebellion. Strange.

31 10 2010
Annika

I am a former copy editor and I would never, ever cross out an interrobang. If anything, I might add one.

31 10 2010
ZebraBelly

You are teh awesome.

31 10 2010
Corey

Interrobang is my new favorite word.

What’s the difference between that and a plain old “!?” ?

31 10 2010
ZebraBelly

Corey, the interrobang just never caught on so I guess it’s simply so obscure only a hipster would know it (har). The “?!” is considered informal so would not appear in most formal publications.

They also spoke of a sideways question mark (where the hump faces up) invented in the 60’s or something and I can’t find it by Googling right now. But I did find this: http://typophile.com/node/28817 WANT. I mean, I want that to become common.

1 11 2010
Sarah

I’d not heard of an interrobang before, but when I combine ?+! it’s always in that order, never !? – as far as I’m concerned the question was there before the need for exclamation.

While reading your post I assumed that I didn’t write “guess what” with a question mark, but having searched my emails it turns out that I do on occasion, or it gets nothing, or an exclamation mark, depending on the excitement of the occasion. But (ha ha, I started a sentence with “but”) being made to think about it, it’s surely a command. No more question marks for me.

1 11 2010
Melissa

My opinion (and someone may have already said this…I have had too much coffee to read anything thoroughly at this point…)is that the phrase “guess what” has a question mark because it expects an answer. It is definitely more of a command, but since it is commanding that you answer it, it is inherently a question. On the other hand, I would think that “Would you shut up” is less of a question because it is specifically telling you not to answer.
That’s my story.
Now I think that I’ll have more coffee.

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