How to write like Raymond: Start a sentence with a question mark

Another installment in the extremely sporadic series on how to write like Raymond.

I use the question mark as an emoticon to indicate befuddlement or confusion. (This is not to be confused with the use of an inverted question mark in Spanish.) Here's an imaginary example:

To: Cakes and Cookies Discussion

Hi, I'm trying to bake a carrot cake, but I'm having trouble finding the right staple gun. Does anybody have any recommendations?

My reply might go something like this:

? What the heck are you planning to do with that staple gun?

Comments (43)
  1. Karellen says:

    You mean you haven’t heard of the interrobang‽


    [I’m not surprised, only confused. The interrobang does not apply. Even if it were an interrobang situation, most people don’t put it at the start of the sentence. -Raymond]
  2. Tom says:

    I often do that when instant messaging, but never in an email.  If you have the time to write an email, then you have the time to write it well.

  3. Alex says:

    @Karellen: It’s not so much a case of punctuation as an emoticon that isn’t really one. It’s as if he was asked :

    "Would you like to go have a beer after work?"

    and he’d answered:

    ":) I’d like that"

    Feel free to replace "have a beer" by any other pleasurable activity.

  4. Laurel says:

    This has simply made my morning.  Staples guns and carrot cake.  The question mark as a emoticon is just an added bonus.  

  5. Anthony says:

    I use three question marks, but I guess it’s good to know that I’m not the only one who does this.

  6. thumper says:

    ? What, you don’t use a staple gun when cooking?

    Gee, my cupboard has lots of staples…

  7. chris says:

    I would have gone with something like

    Hi, I’m trying to bake a carrot cake, but I’m having trouble chopping the elephant. Does anybody have any recommendations?

  8. qq says:

    No staple gun? What do you use to immobilize the carrots, then?

  9. someone else says:

    ¿Have you been reading xkcd again, Raymond?

    And it looks like a censored “WTF?”

  10. Maurits says:

    I see the problem.  It should be "Cake and Cookies Discussion".  I can easily imagine sending email about cookies, and even about cake – but about cakes?  Never.

  11. Someone else: I was just going to say the same thing. That’s totally a "WTF?" moment, I think.

  12. Jonathan says:

    I’ve been known to use ?!? or !?! depending on how confused or incredulous I was.

  13. jeffdav says:

    This is one thing that I wish was different about MSFT: the tendency to answer a question with a question.  Given that MSFT wants to hire only the best and the brightest, can we assume this person at least has some halfway plausible reason to think they need a staple gun to bake a cake?  

    A much more useful reply would be "using a staple gun to bake a carrot cake is completely non-standard and unsupported.  Here is how you bake a carrot cake: …"  

    Don’t imagine your coworkers are stupid (even when they are); imagine they’re just completely unfamiliar with the arcane system you’ve built.

  14. configurator says:

    I do that too, but I don’t consider the first question mark an emoticon – I think of it as an empty sentence. Sometimes, I’d only say "?" without elaborating.

  15. David Walker says:


    Which is better to pound a nail:  A glass bottle or an old shoe?


    ?  You have old shoes?  All of my shoes are new.

  16. Frymaster says:

    "can we assume this person at least has some halfway plausible reason to think they need a staple gun to bake a cake?"

    no, not really :D

    also, "best" at what?  this could be another case of someone thinking expertise in one area translates to expertise in another unrelated area

    besides, apart from the "questioning assumptions to work out where this dude can improve" aspect, there’s also the "genuinely curious as to what this dude is smoking" aspect :D

  17. Mark says:

    Is that really at the beginning of the sentence?  Isn’t it just an empty sentence, i.e. ""?

  18. I’m also using ?!? and !?! for the purpose of showing confusion, I think they are a lot more common and self-explanatory.

  19. Random832 says:

    @Tom, Couldn’t one just as easily say "If you have the time to write an instant message, then you have the time to write it well"?

    It doesn’t inherently take more time to write an email than an IM. It only does if you’ve already decided to take the time to, as you say, "write it well."

  20. keith says:

    I believe all the characters in the Tintin books at some point had a "?" or "?!" caption on discovering something of alarm, so there’s a mutli-decade precedent.  

  21. Wesha says:

    Aww, poor fella, hopelessly stuck with bland question mark. We’ve moved along to emoticons to convey, well, emotions long, long time ago.

    Choose one you like most:

    8-O  What the heck are you planning to do with that staple gun?

    =O.O=   What the heck are you planning to do with that staple gun?

    Emoticons 101:

    :-)   happy guy

    8-O   amused/WTF?? guy (eyes popping, mouth open)

    =^.^=  cat

    =O.O=  amused/WTF?? cat (eyes popping).

  22. Wesha says:

    This has simply made my morning.  Staples guns and carrot cake.

    You might have never heard the iconic one:

    (that’s from the game called Portal).

  23. Timothy Byrd says:

    I do that too, occasionally, Raymond, but it’s more common for me to use a question mark by itself as a complete paragraph to mean something like “please explain”.

    In your mind, does the leading question mark really bind with the following sentence, or is it more of a “Huh?” / “Say what?” / double-take sorta-kinda thing?

    — T

    [It’s a double-take sorta-kinda thing. -Raymond]
  24. obuibo says:

    I too am a fan of the lone question mark as an emoticon. I interpret/intend it to be a raised eyebrow, meaning it takes the place in written conversation that a raised eyebrow would take in face to face communication.

  25. Puckdropper says:

    Does your parser handle double-question mark terminated strings properly?

  26. Eric TF Bat says:


    (And that’s all I have to say about that.)

  27. Peter says:

    I think that way of writing your comment reads rather natural.

    Personally, I interpret that first question mark as something that sounds like a poorly articulated sound, much like "huh!"

    huwh… uh, what the heck are you planning to do with that staple gun?

    And I think that is exactly what you mean to say with it.

  28. KenW says:

    "This is one thing that I wish was different about MSFT"

    You know how to tell when you’re a total troll? You write comments on a blog post about cakes and staplers, and *still* find a way to make it a MS bash.

  29. Pax says:

    I don’t think you need the "?" in that sentence. The start of the sentence iteslf ("What the heck …" instead of just "What …") seems to convey the indication that the question is dubious.

  30. Pax says:

    In any case, the right response to "Hi, I’m trying to bake a carrot cake, but I’m having trouble finding the right staple gun. Does anybody have any recommendations?" is a simple "My recommendation is to find a better recipe for carrot cake – I cannot envisage ANY situation in which a staple gun would be required for that task (unless you’d like to enlighten me)".

  31. Falcon says:

    Regarding answering a question with a question: in this (hypothetical) case, you’d need to know what the person was planning to do with a staple gun so that you could recommend an appropriate one (or, more likely, an entirely different approach)!

  32. Worf says:

    I do that too, butonly on informal communications (IM, IRC). Emails I tend to to show surprise another way.

  33. Drak says:

    I too use the ? at the start of sentences sometimes, and indeed it is to convey ‘huh?!’.

    ? What are you talking about?

  34. Mike Caron says:

    @Mark: It *has* to be the beginning of the sentence. If it were the end of an empty sentence, then it would be cut off by the null terminator…

  35. jon says:

    How to write like Raymond:

    1. Assume everyone else is stupid

    2. Make people feel guilty for having been born if they dare ask a question

    3. See #1

  36. Lauren Smith says:

    Pax, this could be a recipe for Halloween carrot cake. Still, I’d at least recommend double-edged Bics over staples.

  37. Mark says:

    To all those saying the question mark should be pronounced:

  38. unekdoud says:

    ? is acceptable at the start of a sentence?

    P.S. Some parsers expect a token before the question mark.

    Right? Example: C programming language.

  39. MS says:

    Communicating with just punctuation marks is doable, consider the world’s shortest correspondence, which allegedly took place between Victor Hugo and his publisher, where he was asking how sales of his new book were going:



    If I ever were to write a book, I suspect the exchange might be the world’s second shortest correspondence:



  40. Ben Voigt [C++ MVP] says:

    Right? Example: C.programming-language;

    There, fixed that for you.

  41. Curt says:

    Clearly the staple gun is necessary only because s/he can’t find a hammer to drive a screw.

    Duh. :)

  42. Me says:

    Raymond, do you use 2 question marks when you are double-confused? :)

  43. Mak says:

    Didn’t realise other people did this too – I’ve never seen other people write questions with ? at start and end.

Comments are closed.

Skip to main content