The Grammarphobia Blog

A sense of wonder

Q: I was typing out dialogue for a play, and wrote this sentence: “I wonder who they’ll move into Mr. Anderson’s cubicle?” I see dialogue like this all the time, written as if the speaker is asking a question. But then it struck me; is this truly a question? Should it be punctuated with a question mark or a period?

A: Obviously, someone who wonders about something has a question on his mind.

But a sentence beginning “I wonder” is a statement, not a question, and a statement should end with a period: “I wonder who they’ll move into Mr. Anderson’s cubicle.” (In case any readers are wondering, we’ll discuss “who” versus “whom” later.)

This is an example of an indirect question, and as The Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed.) says, “An indirect question never takes a question mark.”

The Chicago Manual gives these examples of indirect questions: “He wondered whether it was worth the risk” and “How the two could be reconciled was the question on everyone’s mind.”

This is a subject we touched on in 2010, but it’s worth mentioning again.

Sometimes a mini-question (like the single word “who,” “when,” “how,” or “why”) is embedded within a statement. Here, too, no question mark is used, though the word may be italicized.

The Chicago Manual illustrates this with two examples: “She asked herself why” and “The question was no longer how but when.”

Similarly, as Chicago says, “A request disguised as a question does not require a question mark.”

A typical example: “Would you kindly respond by March 1.”

So much for indirect questions. But as conscientious language mavens, we should mention one other point about your sentence, “I wonder who they’ll move into Mr. Anderson’s cubicle.”

A purist would remind you that technically, the grammatical construction calls for “whom” instead of “who.” But we believe that “who” can be defended here.

As we’ve written before on our blog, in speech or in casual writing it can seem stuffy and unnatural to begin a sentence or clause with “whom.” So in what appears to be an informal office conversation, you can certainly justify your use of “who” instead.

By the way, the verb “wonder” is very old, dating back to
Anglo-Saxon days. The earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary is from King Alfred’s translation of Boethius into Old English, circa 888, when “to wonder” meant to be struck with surprise or astonishment.

The noun “wonder” is even older, according to OED citations, first appearing in “Caedmon’s Hymn,” an Old English poem from around 700, when it referred to something that causes astonishment.

The noun (wunder in Old English) is similar to words in Old Frisian, Old Saxon, Old High German, and other Germanic languages.

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