September 24, 2021

The year was 1967, and I was playing the organ in a college rock band called “Tuesday’s Children.” We were popular in Rhode Island and the surrounding states, playing mixers, sock hops and frat parties. We made a little spending cash and had lots of fun.

We played a gig at Bryant College, a dance concert. We played the dance, and a hot band on tour with a hit record played the concert. The song was called “96 Tears,” a garage band classic. The band was called Question Mark and the Mysterians.

If the folks at PolitiFact checked that out, they would discover a mistake. The band preferred not to spell out its lead singer’s rock ‘n’ roll name. They preferred the actual mark of punctuation: “? and the Mysterians.”

The inventor of the question mark is said to be an Anglo-Saxon scholar named Alcuin of York, a guy I remember bumping into in graduate school.

But who invented the question? My guess is someone feeling in the interrogative mood, sick and tired of the declarative and imperative moods of the people they encountered.

My playful speculation is meant to remind the public writer — all writers — that when it comes to verbs, moods matter. The word “mood” describes a quality of verbs, not to be confused with “tense” or “voice.”

The mood of a verb describes the environment of meaning in which a verb exists.

In English, the basic moods include the “declarative,” sometimes called the mood of reality, the most common way of telling it like it is: “This vaccine will help save your life.”

The “imperative” mood is a favorite of parents: “Clean your room”; or of urgent helpers: “Get vaccinated today at the free clinic”; and, too often, of bullies, tyrants and loudmouths in general.

The “subjunctive” is the subtlest of moods. It tends to express ambiguity, the hypothetical, or circumstances that are contrary to fact: “If I were you, I’d get vaccinated.” To which someone might respond in the declarative: “But you are not me!” The subjunctive pops up in unusual, and, at times, archaic phrases, such as, “Be that as it may.”

What about the interrogative mood?

See what I just did? (I did it again!)

For the purposes of public writing, the question may turn out to be the most versatile, and, at its best, the most engaging. From the question that sparks the advice column to the ones that clinch a cross-examination, the question is a writing tool that rules.

Among my favorite uses:

The narrative question: Stories benefit from the energy created by questions, especially those that can only be answered by reading the story: Who done it? Guilty or not guilty? Who wins the race? Who gets the prize? Who is worthy of true love? Who solves the problem? How many obstacles can Harry Potter overcome?

The interview question: In their research, public writers will want to connect with many stakeholders who are affected by a policy or issue. Who has the most at stake?

Some stakeholders are official experts: marine biologists, epidemiologists, economists, all those “-ist” people. But if you are just asking questions of experts, and writing down what they say, you are missing half the game. Every person is an unofficial expert of their own experience. I have overstated it. But there are beneficiaries and victims, winners and losers, even in catastrophes. The best type of interview question, in most cases, is the open-ended question.

The open-ended question: The philosopher Plato made famous the interrogatory teaching style of his mentor. We call it the Socratic method, made manifest with the Socratic question. Socrates taught his students by leading them to a predetermined destination, some wisdom about the world or the human condition. The teacher in this case already knows the answer. Questions lead students along the path.

Such questions are not of much use to public writers, except, perhaps, in hardcore investigations to see if a source is telling the truth. With open-ended questions, the source has knowledge that the reporter wants to gain. The questioner does not know the answer ahead of time. That’s what makes the open-ended question such a powerful vehicle for learning, collaborating and gaining on the truth. “You were stranded on the side of the road for hours in that blizzard. What was that like? What did you learn?”

The anticipatory question: I imagine that tour guides over time learn how to anticipate questions: How tall is that building? How long has it been here? Who was the architect? Where is the restroom? In the digital age, this function of anticipation is put into practice on websites by a link to an FAQ: frequently asked questions. Those questions do not come out of nowhere. They are harvested by human interaction and algorithms. Done well, they are enormously useful to public learning and understanding.

The power of the Q&A

The Q&A remains one of the most powerful tools for explanation and comprehension ever created. It anticipates the needs and interests of the audience. It asks questions they would ask, but also ones they would not think to ask. The visual effect of this genre also aids in the journey of understanding. The questions are often set apart typographically — perhaps in boldface. The answers come in digestible chunks.

I am writing this on July 20, 2021, from what used to be the dining room of my house in St. Petersburg, Florida. This space became a home office upon the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. In recent weeks, there has been a resurgence of the delta variant of the coronavirus. In addition, we have been hit by a small hurricane, Elsa, with some flood damage in the region. There has also been a return of a natural occurrence called a red tide bloom. That tide kills tons and tons of fish and other sea life and fills the air with noxious pollutants.

I had so many questions. It was my good fortune to encounter the work of Zachary T. Sampson and his colleagues at the Tampa Bay Times. Their timely Q&A was titled: “Tampa Bay has Red Tide questions. Here are some answers.” This is not the space to reprint the entire text, but it is worth reprinting the questions. They will give a quick sense of the scope and complexity of what is being offered to the public:

  • What is Red Tide?
  • What is a bloom?
  • Why is Red Tide plaguing Tampa Bay now?
  • Where did this come from? Did the Piney Point disaster have anything to do with it?
  • Why is it killing so much marine life?
  • When will the bloom go away?
  • How long has Red Tide been a problem?
  • What role do humans play in a bloom?
  • Does Red Tide affect people too?
  • Is it okay to eat seafood right now?
  • Can I walk my dog right now on a beach with Red Tide?
  • Can I swim in Red Tide?
  • Where is all the dead stuff going?
  • This all stinks. What can I do?

I count 15 questions, accompanied by answers that range from the scientific and technical to the practical. The answer to the question about the Piney Point disaster reveals the level of care in reporting and research:

The harmful algae feast upon nutrients regularly found in Tampa Bay, such as nitrogen.

Excess nitrogen enters the water in many ways, including through fertilizer runoff and wastewater released from land.

But this year, scientists say, the Red Tide is almost certainly finding more fuel because of a singular manmade catastrophe: More than 200 million gallons of polluted water was dumped into the bay between late March and early April off the grounds of the old Piney Point fertilizer plant in Manatee County.

The state allowed the release by property owner HRK Holdings because regulators feared a large, leaking reservoir was about to collapse, sending a devastating flood into surrounding neighborhoods and businesses. That wastewater was dumped into the bay at Port Manatee and carried a lot of nitrogen with it.

You may have heard local leaders and researchers repeat over and over again that Piney Point did not cause this Red Tide.

What they mean is: The release is not why Karenia brevis turned up in the bay. That doesn’t mean the pollution couldn’t be exacerbating the bloom.

Think of a brush fire: Something has to give off a spark, like a match, to get it going. The flames then need dry material to keep burning. In this case, nutrients — those already in the bay and the enormous amount added by Piney Point — are the fuel.

As for the ignition? Scientists have theorized that several environmental factors may be at play. …

A print version of this kind of Q&A can run to a significant length, especially in magazines. Oral histories generated by questions and answers can fill up volumes of books. But there are times when only three or four questions suffice, followed by short answers.

In broadcast journalism, after a report is delivered an anchor may “interview” the reporter, a call and response that, even when plotted, feels a little like a conversation. Public radio makes best use of the form. I especially appreciate them in reported programs such as “Marketplace,” when the anchor, usually Kai Ryssdal, unpacks a complicated problem with the economy.

Veteran teacher of broadcast journalism, Al Tompkins, offers this perspective:

Some anchors want scripted questions and some not. The best questions are real questions based on story content. Producers sometimes insist on knowing what is going to be asked so they can budget time. Reporters hate being asked dopey questions that they do not know how to answer. The worst questions are when the anchor was not listening to the story, then asks a question that you just answered in the piece. You want to say “Well, Mike, if you had listened to the story rather than chatting with the weatherman you have heard me say …” But you don’t. You say, “Great questions, Mike, so let me emphasize …”

The key is that when I am asked a question in the public interest, I am more likely to sound like an informed person sharing information than an expert giving a lecture.

Since I began this essay with an anecdote about rock ‘n’ roll glory, I will end with one on domestic bliss. I can testify that after 50 years of marriage, my wife Karen and I know each other’s moves — and moods. What I have learned is a strategy that might be called the “imperative interrogative,” an order disguised as a question: “Have you put out the trash?”

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Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty…
Roy Peter Clark

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