Dear Mary


Q. A friend has returned from America with a maddening new vocal tic. He ends every sentence with an upward inflexion as though it were a question. What can I do to stop him, and worse, myself, as I find the habit so infectious that I begin almost thinking in questions when I have been with him?

M. W., London WI

A. 'Questobabble' is an appalling new plague - but seductive, as you have noted. The discreet powers it bestows on the questobabbler are irresistible. First, the shorthand opportunities: a question-mark is applicable to the end of every sentence a person speaks, since it does away with the need for asking if the listener has understood or is in agreement. Second, the domination opportunities: rather than halting your flow with comments or awkward questions, the would-be interlocutor is reduced to silent nodding and eyebrow-raising, and the questobabbler can hold the floor unchallenged. The vice must be swiftly stamped out since, like ground-elder, once it has taken hold it can be impossible to eradicate. Redress the balance next time you are in conversation with your friend by ending every sentence of your own with a downward inflexion, your last word dropping off into a slow, depressing moan. When your friend questions this vocal tic, announce, `Yes, I'm trying to cure myself of this terrible new habit I've picked up of ending all my sentences with question-marks. Do you find you do that sometimes?'

Q. The other night, I went to a dinner party given by a powerful hostess with whom I have many friends in common, but whom I have not seen much myself since we were both guests on the same beach holiday ten years ago. …

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