Consider the sentence:

You didn't leave the dog in the car, did you?

In spoken English, this statement may be spoken with a rising intonation or a falling one. If the former, it suggests that leaving the dog in the car is a bad thing, and might even suggest incredulity and consternation on the part of the person asking.

In the latter case, when the sentence ends with a falling intonation, the speaker probably believes that the dog should have been left in the car, and that the person being addressed fell short. It amounts to an accusation.

Now, given that question tags are always questions, it seems they ought to be punctuated with a question mark. But in written form, especially dialogue, it feels to me that question tags meant to be spoken with a falling intonation might get by with just a period:

You didn't leave the dog in the car, did you.

I've tried Web searches but haven't gotten close to a set of search terms that point me toward an appropriate source. Anybody know of a definitive answer to this question?

Further Reflection

One of the reasons I ask this is that any declarative statement may be changed into a question by means of a rising intonation at the end.

You left the dog in the car.

becomes a question if your voice modulates upward at the end. In written English, it is customary to show that by means of a question mark:

You left the dog in the car?

I include this information because @FumbleFingers asserts that "punctuation may not be used to differentiate [someone's] two intonations." Yet clearly there are cases in which punctuation is used in precisely that way (though in this case involving the opposite modulation from what I'm suggesting). So I wonder if it might not be possible to move the needle in the other direction.

If not, why not?

Note: I almost accepted my own answer to this question, but retracted it. If someone comes up with a better one I'll certainly consider awarding that one the checkmark. I think this question touches on an important concept, despite the scant attention it has received.

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    Traditional punctuation prescribes a question mark even if the tone does not go up; it is not a direct representation of tone, but of the grammatical status of the sentence (direct question or no). See Fowler. – Cerberus Jun 15 '12 at 15:24
  • Possible duplicate: english.stackexchange.com/questions/67355/… – Elberich Schneider Jun 15 '12 at 15:47
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    @RégisRoux they're not asking about the same things. – Matt E. Эллен Jun 15 '12 at 15:48
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    @RégisRoux: They are not even remotely similar, except that both concern question tags. – Robusto Jun 15 '12 at 15:48
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    I might punctuate #2 like this: "You didn't leave the dog in the car – did you." (BTW, your question has me wondering if you should have ended the title of your question with a question mark... A question mark is always required – isn't it.) – J.R. Jun 15 '12 at 15:50

The Chicago Manual of Style, 15th Edition (2003) has this entry under "Exclamation Point":

6.77 Exclamation rather than question. A question that is essentially an exclamation usually ends with an exclamation point.

How could you possibly believe that!

When will I ever learn!

If we take this guidance seriously, it seems to me, then for like reasons we ought to find it acceptable for a question that is essentially a statement to end with a period.

Consider this lyric from Lisa Germano's song "Bad Attitude": "But if life was easy, you wouldn't learn anything, now would you." I certainly wouldn't criticize a writer for complying with the standard approach of ending that statement with a question mark—and in fact I believe that Ms. Germano does use that punctuation. Nevertheless, given that her more-speaking-than-singing voice drops by more than an octave between "now" and "would you," I wouldn't think it misleading to end the sentence with a period.

In addition, Chicago 15 has an entry under "Question Mark" for what it calls "courtesy questions":

6.74 Courtesy question. A request courteously disguised as a question does not require a question mark.

Would you kindly respond by March 1.

Will the audience please rise.

That gives us two instances in which a widely influential U.S. reference work endorses using punctuation other than a question mark to end a phrase otherwise structured as a question.

I tend to agree with Robusto that strict adherence to the rule requiring all statements that are laid out in a form that would normally identify them as questions to end in question marks prevents writers from indicating, as they otherwise might, whether the intonation of the speaker's voice is rising or falling. The bad aspect of any widespread effort to differentiate intonation by punctuation is that it invites countless instances where authors choose punctuation mismatched to their intended intonation, and readers—newly alert for clues to intonation in the punctuation—consequently misinterpret the sentence.

  • By "mismatched to their intention," I mean "mismatched to their intended intonation." – Sven Yargs Feb 21 '13 at 2:49
  • I edited that for you, but you could have done that yourself by clicking the edit link underneath your text. – Robusto Feb 21 '13 at 3:02

I don't normally answer my own questions, but in this case I feel compelled to do so. FumbleFingers' answer — the only answer this question has received* — while well-argued and not incorrect, feels like the answer of someone who is faced with a problem he recognizes but cannot solve, and so falls back on whatever has served in the past: in this case, the "standard rules of punctuation."

I've thought about this for a long time, and I am coming to the opinion that "standard rules of punctuation" are a fluid concept, changing with the rest of language. Certainly no one would suggest that the punctuation rules of the 18th or 19th centuries would apply today. The meaning of entire statements in the U.S. Constitution, for example, would seem to turn on archaic styles of usage for commas. Just look at the Second Amendment:

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

By today's standards, there are too many commas. The extra commas have created a storm of controversy. We would not write the same sentence the same way today. Punctuation has moved on.

I am going to suggest, then, that punctuation may be used (to some, abused) as a matter of expression. Writers have been doing this for many years. Normally we would suggest that dialogue in text, say, should be governed by "standard rules of punctuation"; the statements made by characters are surrounded by quote marks, and there are rules governing what is done with other punctuation inside and outside the quotes. But then we look at works by James Joyce or William Gaddis, and we see that some authors, at least, decided that an em dash was a better way to set off instances of dialogue. Here is a fragment from Joyce's novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man:

Stephen had answered: Stephen Dedalus.
Then Nasty Roche had said:
—What kind of a name is that?
And when Stephen had not been able to answer Nasty
Roche had asked:
—What is your father?
Stephen had answered:
—A gentleman.
Then Nasty Roche had asked:
—Is he a magistrate?

It is worth noting that Joyce doesn't even use an em dash in the first line. He uses a colon instead. Similarly, Faulkner tried to move English forward by eliminating apostrophes from some of the contractions (notably, dont, wont, cant and aint). Now, you may argue that none of these treatments caught on, but that does not negate the work of these authors, nor call into question their right to make their own rules in the pursuit of expression.

At this point I have to remind everyone about one of the conditions I cited in my question above:

But in written form, especially dialogue, it feels to me that question tags meant to be spoken with a falling intonation might get by with just a period

So — again, reminding everyone that we are talking about writing as an expressive medium, and that nobody has addressed this aspect of the question — I am going to conclude that using a period instead of a question mark at the end of a question tag may be construed as a matter of stylistic expression. I wouldn't do that in an academic paper, or a scientific treatise, of course, but we are much less likely to encounter dialogue in those venues anyway.

* As of the original posting date; obviously that's changed now.

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    +1 Of course you're right. Dialogue is not formal written English. ? is used arbitrarily to mark the high-rising terminal in 'uptalk'; why shouldn't its absence be used to mark a falling intonation? – StoneyB Feb 20 '13 at 11:34
  • An interesting aside: Faulkner's attempts to eliminate some apostrophes (mentioned above) sometimes result in entirely different words, "wont" and "cant" being two examples. They are real, distinct words; therefore it wouldn't make sense to drop the distinguishing apostrophes from "won't" and "can't." – John M. Landsberg Feb 24 '13 at 8:57
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    @Robusto I absolutely agree with you. The point of punctuation is to aid understanding of text where the intonations and facial expressions of speech are missing. We should follow the rules as a general guide but if different punctuation better suits our purpose then we should use it. – Mynamite Feb 24 '13 at 19:32
  • Possibly irrelevant, but the convention in e.g. Hungarian literature is to set off dialogue with em dashes. So Joyce wasn't necessarily making up a new convention; he was merely following a different one than the one that calls for quotation marks. – Marthaª Nov 20 '13 at 22:22

While it's ultimately a matter of style and preference, I think the case for the period is very strong. The period makes the writing clearer without becoming a distraction, and that's what good punctuation should do.

Using italics to distinguish the two kinds of tag questions works, but adding more punctuation creates more distraction.

The only real argument against the period that I'm aware of is that the punctuation "error" becomes a distraction. But in my experience this is not the case -- readers get used to it very quickly.

  • +1: As an aside, one of the reasons I asked this question in the first place is that I found myself unconsciously writing a period after questions my inner ear perceived to have that falling inflection. – Robusto Feb 20 '13 at 12:52
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    @Robusto: I think Pitarou has put his finger on the nub of the problem. We're all so conditioned to expect a question mark after any utterance framed as a question (regardless of whether it actually is a genuine "enquiry") that initially it's extremely distracting if it's not there. But just as when you get into deep conversation with someone who has a heavy and previously unfamiliar accent (or when you first start reading Riddley Walker), it usually turns out you can get used to the new situation quite quickly. – FumbleFingers Feb 21 '13 at 0:03

I'm not sure it counts as a "definitive answer", but so far as I'm concerned punctuation can't be used to differentiate OP's two intonations (and hence, meanings).

The standard rules of punctuation require the question mark to follow all constructions framed as questions, though style guides generally make exceptions for either/both of these types:

The teacher was waiting for them when they got back and was she mad! (really an exclamation).
Miss Kate, will you take a seat over there in your chair again. (courtesy question/invitation/order).

It may be worth noting that by introducing an italic font as well as punctuation, some other interpretations can be implied...

"You didn't leave the dog in the car. Did you?"

...which with no other context, implies the speaker is addressing two people - stating/confirming that the first didn't leave the dog in the car, and asking the second whether they did.

"You didn't leave the dog in the car, did you?"

...which implies OP's "former" case (speaker is concerned/incredulous), but shifts the element of surprise to the fact that the dog might have been left in the car, rather than somewhere else. One could just as easily italicise/emphasise the word "dog" (surprise that we're talking about the dog, rather than, say, the baby).

Those contrived contexts are probably only two of many alternative meanings that can be conveyed by how the text is written, but the level of diferentiation OP seeks simply doesn't exist.

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    Clarification from the downvoter would be appreciated. – FumbleFingers Jun 15 '12 at 16:38
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    +1, and I can't imagine why anyone would have wanted to downvote. A question is a question is a question. Question tags, even those with a falling intonation, require a response (even if one is not always given). – Barrie England Jun 15 '12 at 16:39
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    +1 also, on principle! It bugs me too when a downvote appears from nowhere. I don't mind disagreement, hell, I enjoy the debate, but I think a downvote should come with a reason. Maybe ELU could be modified so that downvotes had to have an explanation. – Roaring Fish Jun 15 '12 at 16:46
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    @Roaring Fish: Interesting idea. A bit extreme, perhaps, but a slightly less severe approach could be really good. Currently you lose 1 point if you downvote. I'm minded to ask in meta if they could tweak SO so you lose 5 points if you downvote a question that you haven't even commented on. That would change behaviour, I reckon. – FumbleFingers Jun 15 '12 at 16:52
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    @RoaringFish 1. what if what needs to be said is already said? 2. stopping votes being anonymous would not make the system better, it would deter voting a great deal. (Not the down voter) – Matt E. Эллен Jun 15 '12 at 17:16

I think there's no way for punctuation alone to represent with absolute fidelity what the speaker's tone, intention, and exact meaning are in such a case. That would be expecting far too much of a simple graphical dot or squiggle.

The writer must decide just how important it is to convey one and only one particular precise tone and intention. The more important it is to convey the exact intended meaning, the more important it becomes to use contextual clues to get that meaning across to the reader.

Creative writing gives you license to describe the setting, the demeanor of the participants in the scene, the exact circumstances surrounding the statement at the moment it is spoken, and much more, in order to give a clear sense of how the statement and its tag question are being delivered. You could even explicitly describe the tone of the person's voice if necessary.

So, no, you are not required to use a question mark, but you are free to utilize all a writer's tools to make the sentence work the way you want it to.

  • I really hate it when people downvote without explaining why. – Pitarou Feb 24 '13 at 23:10
  • +1 You basically said what I was thinking, John - that with all the writing tools at one's disposal, why box the dialog into needing to depend on the question mark. However, if one is reporting, not creating, it becomes slightly more difficult since the actual quoted words are limited to what was actually said. Kyudos answer addresses that issue by utilizing descriptions such as "she asked incredulously", etc. – Kristina Lopez Feb 25 '13 at 19:16

I basically agree with FumbleFingers, I say you should always use a question mark, but you can't derive the intonation from the text so written.

But why would you restrict yourself when using the written word? Something like:

"You didn't leave the dog in the car, did you?", she asked incredulously...

or a slight rephrasal:

"You left the dog in the car, didn't you?", she asked incredulously...

would provide further context, which would then inform the reader regarding intonation (were they to read the written text aloud for instance).

Short answer - the written word requires more context, what stops you from providing it?

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    I won't downvote, because it's a sensible answer, but I must disagree. You are sacrificing economy of expression because you can't bring yourself to punctuate sensibly. – Pitarou Feb 20 '13 at 4:08
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    Sorry, but in what way can you punctuate this to unambiguously delineate all the possible meanings spoken inflection could convey? I don't think it is possible - but why would you try? Punctuation isn't the correct tool for the job in this case. – Kyudos Feb 20 '13 at 21:09
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    Of course punctuation can't convey EVERY nuance, but in the case of tag questions, there are clearly two distinct types, with distinct meanings and distinct intonations, and it seems that punctuation is the perfect tool for distinguishing them. – Pitarou Feb 21 '13 at 12:41
  • One punctuation mark is enough, and the comma after the quotation mark is incorrect. Also, incredulously is spelled wrong. – shipr Feb 21 '13 at 22:13
  • There are more than two types of tag questions; punctuation could never represent them all. And by the way, regarding the question mark followed by a comma, we already have an "interrobang" (question mark combined with exclamation point) although it is almost never used. Why not create a combination question mark and comma (replacing the period under the squiggle)? I think it would be wonderfully useful, and graphically easy to understand, in exactly such cases as the example sentences Kyudos gives here. – John M. Landsberg Feb 24 '13 at 8:45

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