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Matthew:

What is the best question you have ever been asked? Also, how do you feel about parentheses?

-- Jay, University City

Mr. Alice:

When I get to the end of this sentence, why will I use a question mark?

-- !, @ home

Onceuponatimealltextlookedlikethis. Someone first had to invent the space between words. Once that was handled, an ancient Greek librarian one slow day devised a system of marks to help lecturers properly read texts aloud. One dot between words indicated a short pause, two a medium pause, three a long one. Punctuation began as guides for speakers, not as clarification of meaning for silent readers. Soon the period, colon, and semicolon were not enough. Someone invented the / (virgule), indicating a very quick pause, which mutated into our comma. In the 12th Century, tired of inventing things, scribes began to borrow from musical notation in Gregorian chants. One mark, a sort of a seven with a dot under it, told a chanter to elevate his intonation at the end of a phrase, as a speaker does when asking a question. So blame the question mark on lazy 12th-century Italian scribes. Parentheses were added in the 1400s; and apparently no one exclaimed before the 1700s. So how do I feel about parentheses? Regular visitors know I'm fascinated by their power and simplicity. A writer can proclaim any nonsense as long as it's encased in parens. And readers know they can skip it. Nothing in parentheses was ever on a final exam. Best question? "Where exactly, Matthew, would you like us to mail your very large check?"

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