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A question is just a question, right? Not according to one idea dating from ancient times, according to which there were two sorts of questions — those intended to obtain information, and those designed to elicit confirmation or denial. A nineteenth century writer explained it like this:

Between a percontation and interrogation, the ancients made this distinction — that the former admitted a variety of answers, while the latter must be replied to by “yes” or “no”.

The Dark Ages, by Rev Samuel Maitland, 1844.

The two types continue to be recognised today, but by terms such as open-ended questions or wh-questions (who, what, why, when, which, where, whose, plus how) for the percontation sort and closed questions or yes-no questions for the other. Though the term percontation might be useful to linguists and psychologists today, it was never popular and shortly after Maitland’s time vanished from the active language.

Its source is the Latin noun percontatio, the action of questioning. Curiously, its root is contus, a long pole, either a boat-pole or a spear, lance or pike, prefixed with per-, meaning “through” in this case. It appears that percontatio was so vigorous or uncivil that it was like being pierced with a pole.

A percontation markIronic, isn’t it?

In the late sixteenth century, the printer Henry Denham (some say his client, the translator Anthonie Gilbie) invented a punctuation mark to differentiate the open-ended question from the yes-no sort, called the punctus percontativus or percontation mark. In shape it was a reversed question mark. (Henry Denham was a pioneer in typography: he also advocated the semi-colon, an Italian invention.)

Since a percontation question could admit of many answers, it might also mark a rhetorical question, one that didn’t require an answer at all. There seems to be no evidence that Denham employed it in this way but the playwright Thomas Middleton did so early in the following century. Nobody else has since bothered with it, mainly because the character has never been available in standard type fonts.

As rhetorical questions are often sarcastic or ironic in tone (“What was the use of sending you to school?”), it has been suggested that the mark would be useful to express such emotions in online forums. Its advocates have given it new names, such as snark and irony mark. The old name is never used — it would seem percontation mark is too long, unfamiliar or hard to spell to be acceptable.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 15 Sep. 2012

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
This page URL: http://www.worldwidewords.org/weirdwords/ww-per3.htm
Last modified: 15 September 2012.