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Some sentences begin with a construction like "May I suggest that...." These are phrased as questions but are really statements. Should such a sentence end with a question mark or a period [full stop] (and what is the rationale)?

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  • How are these not questions? May I suggest you try the soup? Is a question, 100%. – terdon Sep 8 '13 at 14:53
  • May I suggest, @terdon, that your example is perhaps not as ambiguous as certain other cases ‘in the wild’ are likely to be, and is therefore not really a very good sentence to use to exemplify this kind of usage./? – Janus Bahs Jacquet Sep 8 '13 at 15:17
  • @JanusBahsJacquet point taken. Nevertheless, they are still questions, the may ensures this. Am I wrong? – terdon Sep 8 '13 at 15:22
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    Oh no, I agree—I always punctuate them as questions, too. But they do often tend to get so long and their interrogativity (?) so far behind that the question mark almost feels out of place. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Sep 8 '13 at 15:46
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Sentences such as the one in your example may be grammatically interrogative, yet not be questions to which speakers expect the usual kinds of answer. There is a difference between their form (interrogative) and their function (statement or command). A question mark will be consistent with their grammatically interrogative form.

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  • Completely agree, +1. Another way to determine this is how you would speak the sentence aloud: if you'd ask it like a question, it needs a question mark. – WendiKidd Sep 8 '13 at 16:44
  • Yes. I can't imagine anyone ever being tempted to put a question mark at the end of "questions" like this: May I suggest you shut up, before I punch your face in! – Merk Sep 9 '13 at 9:36
  • With an utterance like that you would rarely need any punctuation at all, because it would normally be spoken rather than written. – Barrie England Sep 9 '13 at 9:38
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I wouldn't use a question mark with May I suggest that you try the soup - I'd label this a hedged recommendation rather than a true question, despite the format. One certainly wouldn't be pleased with the obvious answers 'yes' or 'no'. Possible responses would be 'I'd prefer the prawn cocktail' or 'What is it?'

At 'The Question Is What Happened to the Question Mark? - Proof That ...' there is support for this position:

A polite request [/recommendation] will not use a question mark but will use a period instead.

Will you please get the attorney’s signature on this pleading and return it to me. (Not really a question because you expect them to do it.)

May I suggest that you research flight times before you book the travel.

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    I agree that it's not a usual question which would expect a yes or no answer (they've already made the recommendation, so whether or not the customer would have liked them to do so is irrelevant) but I'd still use question mark. The question mark is appropriate when the sentence is spoken as a question; that is, with a lifting note on the last word. I would speak "May I suggest that you try the soup?" as a question, and therefore I would punctuate it as a question. – WendiKidd Sep 8 '13 at 16:44
  • @WendiKidd: Yes, there is a grey area here: as is stated in the article I link to above, 'The biggest confusion will come in determining whether the thing you are asking is a direct question or a polite request.' I'm with the writers in assessing 'May I suggest ...' to be a politeness marker rather than a question (though Bertie Wooster would doubtless exploit the faint opportunity of ambiguity: 'No, you jolly well may not, Jeeves!), and I certainly wouldn't ever use the rising tone myself. 'May I suggest ...' might be used sarcastically, on the other hand. – Edwin Ashworth Sep 9 '13 at 9:51
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I guess this may be a question of personal choice and preference but, I at least would pronounce such constructs as questions and would, therefore, punctuate them as such. To take examples similar to those in Edwin Ashworth's answer, I would end both Will you please bring me the papers? and May I suggest that Madame try the soup? with an upward inflection at the end. They are both requests, the first for a service and the latter for permission and they are both questions. At any rate, I would pronounce them as such.

This brings to mind that wonderful courtroom exchange (I've never been able to determine its veracity but is it very funny) between an incompetent barrister and a man accused of stealing 40000 hotel coat hangers:

Counsel: Yes, m'lud. Now, Mr Chrysler, perhaps you will describe what reason you had to steal 40,000 coat hangers?

Chrysler: Is that a question?

Counsel: Yes.

Chrysler: It doesn't sound like one. It sounds like a proposition which doesn't believe in itself. You know – "Perhaps I will describe the reason I had to steal 40,000 coat hangers... Perhaps I won't... Perhaps I'll sing a little song instead..."

Judge: In fairness to Mr Lovelace, Mr Chrysler, I should remind you that barristers have an innate reluctance to frame a question as a question. Where you and I would say, "Where were you on Tuesday?", they are more likely to say, "Perhaps you could now inform the court of your precise whereabouts on the day after that Monday?". It isn't, strictly, a question, and it is not graceful English but you must pretend that it is a question and then answer it, otherwise we will be here for ever. Do you understand?

Chrysler: Yes, m'lud.

Judge: Carry on, Mr Lovelace.

Note that this is even more ambiguous than May I suggest you try the soup? and is still punctuated as a question despite not being treated as one.

So, if you pronounce it as a question, punctuate accordingly. Janus Bahs Jacquet gave a very good example in his comment:

May I suggest, @terdon, that your example is perhaps not as ambiguous as certain other cases ‘in the wild’ are likely to be, and is therefore not really a very good sentence to use to exemplify this kind of usage?

It is long and convoluted but starts with a request for permission to make a suggestion, is therefore a question and if I were to read it out loud I would pronounce it as such. Hence, the question mark.

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  • .....You would? – Edwin Ashworth Sep 8 '13 at 23:02
  • @EdwinAshworth yes, if I were to write them I would add a question mark. I find it odd that you wouldn't but I seem to be in the minority :). – terdon Sep 8 '13 at 23:06
  • You are happy with the question marks I use/d in the last comment and this one though? Even though they're not at the end of classically structured interrogative sentences? I'm a firm believer in the maxim 'Punctuation is a servant, not a dictator - it should be used to help to structure and understand written etc language. And if improved ways are thought of, the old 'rules' (pseudo-rules really) should be sacrificed for the greater good.' Here, 'You would?' and 'You would!' have very different meanings. Accordingly, I'd consider it more helpful to indicate function/meaning rather than form. – Edwin Ashworth Sep 9 '13 at 9:13
  • May your camels never miscarry. (/?) – Edwin Ashworth Sep 9 '13 at 9:54
  • @EdwinAshworth No fair, different meaning of may! I agree with both your points. Each of the sentences you gave in your last comment was indeed a question despite not being phrased as one. However, I would pronounce the ones from your answer as questions as well and so I treat them accordingly. It is not a matter of "rules" as such, more of what I feel comfortable writing. – terdon Sep 9 '13 at 14:37

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