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Recently, there was a debate as to when one can legitimately end a declarative statement with a question mark, like writing “I don’t know?” as an answer, and what that could possibly mean.

The dialogue ran something like this:

Question:   “How is your friend?”

Answer:       “I don’t know?”

Is this wrong in terms of usage?

marked as duplicate by FumbleFingers, tchrist, TrevorD, p.s.w.g, Bradd Szonye Aug 5 '13 at 6:20

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I assume OP is referring to...

high rising terminal (HRT) - also known as moronic interrogative, uptalk, upspeak, rising inflection, unnecessary inflection, or high rising intonation (HRI). A feature of some accents of English where statements have a rising intonation pattern in the final syllable or syllables of the utterance.

It doesn't really indicate a question in the mind of the speaker (unless maybe it's a kind of generic "How will you respond to what I just said?", or "Is that okay with you?"). The general principle in English is only write a question mark at the end of a question, which OP's example probably isn't.

I and many other people find it incredibly irritating, but you can't change how people speak. That Wikipedia link above says, it is ridiculed in Britain as "Australian question intonation", but I think Americans also associate it with Southern California Valley Girl speech.

  • As a SoCal native my first thought would be that this is a case of upspeak as well. But, depending on the context, I may alternatively read / hear “I don’t know?” as meaning “I [think] I don’t know [but maybe if I thought about it some more or you gave me more information I would change my mind]”. As an aside: many sociolinguists consider upspeak to not be a submissive speech pattern, but essentially daring the listener to disagree. – redjives Aug 4 '13 at 17:56
  • I've only ever heard it referred to as the Australian Interrogative Ending, complete with capital letters. I suppose that might give it a gravitas it doesn't deserve; but it seems to have gained traction in the UK since Neighbours and Home and Away started (around twenty years ago). – Andrew Leach Aug 4 '13 at 18:03
  • @redjives: I think it kinda depends on the speaker, the context, and the audience whether it's reflective of submissiveness, bravado/bluster, or out-and-out aggression. I have a niece who often uses it in the first mode there, and a son who often uses in the last. It's not really "native" to either of them, but I don't think they're normally aware of when they're using it, so I guess for each in their different ways, it's just part of their available repertoire (I certainly haven't had much success persuading either of them to avoid it around me! :( – FumbleFingers Aug 4 '13 at 20:50
  • See, amongst other things, this question. – tchrist Aug 4 '13 at 21:03
  • 1
    There's an interesting perspective on this issue at Language Log. – Bradd Szonye Aug 5 '13 at 6:06

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