12

Should there be a question mark at the end of this next sentence?

Surely I must be wrong.

I think not because it's not a direct question. What is the correct thing to do?

  • Yes, there should be. It's a positive declarative question - the kind that has an epistemic bias towards a positive answer. The bias is reinforced by the inclusion of "surely" , which indicates confidence in the truth of the proposition. So, yes, I'd add a question mark. – BillJ Jan 14 '17 at 20:27
  • Ok - even if this isn't being said by a character but just by a narrator with a conversational voice? – Rach32 Jan 14 '17 at 20:34
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    (I would note that some comma weenies would place a comma after "surely", either because it's interpreted as an exclamation, or because "surely" is seen as modifying "must" but is out of sequence.) – Hot Licks Jan 14 '17 at 20:39
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    It depends on the inflection of the voice. It could be either a question or a statement. – Mawg Jan 16 '17 at 8:56
28

The question mark (?) is almost never used in English as a strictly syntactic marker.

You would do better to think of it as imposing interrogative intonation—the characteristic rising tone at the end of the utterance which 'invites' your hearer to respond. It can thus be employed with utterances which have the form of a declaration:

Surely I must be wrong? indicates that you are not entirely confident that you are in fact wrong, and you would like your hearer to provide confirmation.

A: You're wrong.
B: You say I'm wrong? indicates that B finds A's statement hard to believe and demands assurance that A actually said it.

By the same token, the question mark can be omitted with utterances which have the form of a question:

A: Did you turn in your paper?
B: Did I turn in my paper. B echoes A's question in a tone of annoyance, indicating that it's a stupid question to have asked. —For heaven's sake, of course I turned in my paper!

  • I can't imagine echoing a statement in sarcasm/annoyance would entail the usage of a period. A double question mark or an interrobang might be more appropriate.. – Mahmoud Al-Qudsi Jan 15 '17 at 22:49
  • @MahmoudAl-Qudsi Perhaps I'm too used to writing for actors -- that period's a 'stage direction' for a disgusted flat reading. – StoneyB Jan 15 '17 at 23:31
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    “indicates that you are not entirely confident” — May I ask then why would the speaker use “surely”? – Andrea Lazzarotto Jan 15 '17 at 23:53
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    @AndreaLazzarotto It does not seem entirely logical, but that’s how it is. Surely in that case means something like “Logic and common sense would dictate that X is quite obviously the case… and yet I’m not entirely convinced that it really is the case”. There is often a note of incredulity as well: “Surely he can’t be that stupid?” implies that it would be almost outrageous to consider that anyone could be that stupid, but the fact of the matter seems to imply that somehow, ‘he’ really is that stupid. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jan 16 '17 at 0:46
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    @MahmoudAl-Qudsi My usage would exactly match StoneyB's now that my attention is drawn to it. The punctuation follows the tone, not any grammar. – chrylis Jan 16 '17 at 9:17
29

If your sentence is requesting an answer, then end it with a question mark. If it is not, then do not do so.

When we speak English, we naturally employ a rising pitch in our voice over the course of a question. This rising tone is our invitation to the person we're addressing for them to respond in a complementary way; that is, with a declarative statement unmarked by a rising tone.

The question mark is a technological invention that allows a reader to infer the intended pitch of the spoken utterance. Since there is no sound in writing, we use punctuation to mark critical subtleties of oral discourse which would otherwise be lost.

It is perfectly possible for all three of these possibilities to exist:

  1. Surely I must be wrong.
  2. Surely I must be wrong!
  3. Surely I must be wrong?

Only the last represents the dip and rise of the last word’s pitch that signals an actual inquiry inviting a direct answer.

  • "The question mark is a technological invention that allows a reader to infer the intended pitch of the spoken utterance." — which sometimes made for interesting sight-reading (e.g. in school), when someone would reach the end of a long sentence, find a question mark & realise that they'd given the piece the wrong inflection :) Shame we didn't adopted the Spanish introductory punctuation (¿, ¡) – anotherdave Jan 16 '17 at 9:53
5

Technically, this is not a question but a statement.

Feel free to rewrite it thus:

I must be wrong, surely.

However, one may choose to add an air of uncertainty by turning it into a question:

Am I wrong?
Surely, I am wrong. Or am I not?
Surely, I must be wrong?

^ All effectively equivalent.

Once it's a question, the "surely" becomes ironic, because you're no longer sure.

Basically, it's up to you.

1

This is a judgement call. The real question is are you leaning more towards this being a question or a statement. If unsure yourself you can always do this: "Surely, I must be wrong...?" or ("Surely, I must be wrong." She glanced up at him, the question plain on her face.

In these I find it's best to say it in your mind and just see what it is, a question or statement. Then take what you get from it and go with that because that is what will communicate no matter what any exacting rule may state.

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    What’s the ellipsis for? Surely ... it must be ... wrong? :) – tchrist Jan 15 '17 at 21:44

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