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Sentence Mechanics
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Sentence Moods

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Sentence Mechanics
  • Sentence Moods: Classifications
    • Declarative
    • Imperative
    • Interrogative
    • Exclamatory
  • Mixed Moods
    • Ironic Tone
    • Quoted Sentences

SENTENCE MOODS: CLASSIFICATIONS

Sentence Mood is one of two ways to classify sentences. (The other is by Sentence Type.)

Your mood is a state of mind affecting your actions and expressed by your tone. Since sentences are expressed on behalf of your state of mind, they, too, are determined by their underlying motive and their inflection. There are four different mood classifications. (If you’re a card player, you can think of sentence moods as suits, some of which have more power and importance than others, depending on the game.)


DECLARATIVE

The most prolific sentence mood in English is the declarative.

Its name comes from the verb "declare," which means "to make explicitly known." It shares a derivation with the word "clarify," and "declare" originally meant "to make clear or bright." So, a declarative sentence is any sentence that wishes to state something explicitly to make it clearly known.

This food could use some salt.

The motivation to declare something be known blankets a lot of different sentences, especially when you take into account that a declarative sentence doesn't have to be true, or even a statement of fact, in order to be declarative. Opinions are just as declarative. When you say, "I believe it's going to rain today," it doesn't matter whether or not it actually rains. You've clarified your belief sufficiently to have made a declaration.

Although declarative sentences with mixed moods change the rules a bit (see below), generally speaking, almost all declarative sentences are punctuated by a period [.]


IMPERATIVE

Now, read this next bit carefully. I mean, please read this next bit carefully. Many students are surprised to find that the words "imperative" and "emperor" are related, but it's true. At one time, being born into the role of emperor gave these leaders an imperious authority to impel the lowly subjects of their empires to do whatever they wanted them to. Before you judge, though, consider that the rulers of old bore the great burden of being their people’s cultural and spiritual identities. They were a direct connection to the gods, whose attention lowly mortals could never hope to sway.

Because emperors and empresses were the godhead, they were not "of the people." They commanded authority from a single, infallible point of view: the "I"; consequently, they did not acknowledge that the "you" existed. Such was their imperious privilege.

The imperative sentence mood, therefore, assumes that one doesn't need to acknowledge a "you," but rather command the you from a position of authority. And the consequence is, the imperative sentence is a command that assumes the pronoun "you," but doesn't ever directly state it.

Pass the salt.

The imperious attitude may have worked for cultures of yore, but, for civilization in the twenty-first century, it isn't always appropriate or polite to assert your dominance when you address friends, family, and strangers whose authority you don't know. When you ordered your mother on the other side of the table to give you the salt shaker, she was quick to remind you of the magic word: "please." "Please" is the polite form of the imperative. Because it adds the condition, "If it pleases you...," it gives you a way to express a command without copping an imperious attitude: courteously sharing your imperious authority by offering your subject the choice to accept your command or not.

Please, pass the salt.
Pass the salt, please.

Note: When an imperious attitude takes the form of a declarative sentence, it expresses the subjunctive mood—not quite the imperious tone, but definitely a mood of subjugation.

Imperative Sentences end in a period [.]

Related Parts of Speech Nouns:

Noun Phrases and Clauses: Direct Address
Pronouns: Personal Pronouns
Verbs Moods: Subjunctive Mood


INTERROGATIVE

To "interrogate" means to ask questions. In an era of extreme rendition and moral debates over physical and psychological abuse of some forms of interrogation, the word "interrogate" has acquired an unpleasant connotation. However, it originally came from the Latin past participle of interrogare: inter- + rogare, ask; request.

Simply put, then, when you're in the mood to ask a question, you pose an interrogative sentence that starts with either an interrogative adjective, pronoun, or adverb—in short, a question word.

An interrogative sentence has a tendency to be inverted in structure or use questions words at the beginning of the sentence so that its inflected mood is announced right away:

Would you pass the salt, please?
Where can I find salt?
What's in this dish?

Interrogative sentences end in a question mark [?].

Related Parts of Speech

Pronouns: Pronouns: Interrogative
Adjectives: Interrogative
Verbs: Conditionals


EXCLAMATORY

The origins of the word "exclaim" are the Latin exclamare: to call or cry out. It shares a derivation with other words such as "proclaim" and "acclaim," "disclaim," "reclaim" and even "quitclaim," all of which have something to do with lifting one's voice in order to be heard. An exclamation is expressed in a mood of urgency. In other words, it's a "Holla!"

As such, an exclamatory sentence is inherently louder and more insistent than other sentences, which is not always compatible with formal and academic tone, especially when you're writing to create an impression of objectivity and a rhetorical appeal of logos.

The food is bland!

Writers should bear in mind that "mood" does not always indicate which emotion. In the example above, is the speaker angry, surprised, or relieved? The exclamation tells us only that he's excited for one reason or another.

That predominant excitement also gives a writer permission not to use complete sentences—or, rather, to let some parts of the sentence go assumed, in the interest of showcasing the emotional intensity of the exclamation:

Bland!
Salt, now!

Both of these examples are, technically speaking, complete sentences. We assume the speaker was too overcome with emotion to get out all the words, but they're in there, nevertheless: hidden below, like an iceberg. The exclamation gives writers the power to give emotion more importance than the grammar, and for this reason the power exclamatory sentences wield should not be abused in academic or formal writing.

Exclamatory Sentences end in an exclamation point [!].

Related Parts of Speech

Interjections


MIXED MOODS AND IRONIC TONE

You might think an interrogative exclamation and an exclamatory question should be one in the same thing, but they are not. True, the difference is subtle; however, moods are quite often subtle yet ultimately important—as anyone who is in a relationship should be able to attest.

The main difference lies in their inflection. Human beings are, if nothing else, creatures of irony. We say one thing but mean another. We inflect a sentence one way but construct it in another way. When you make a recommendation for a movie that leaves your friends incredulous, one of them will turn to you, raise an eyebrow, and say,

You're telling me you want to go see that!?

The statement above is phrased in the mood of an exclamation, but it's posed in the tone (the inflection) of a question. Therefore, it's an interrogative exclamation. In this case, we punctuate the mood of the sentence first, then the inflection of it second.

Conversely, questions can be barked, screamed, laughed, or bawled. We can ask a question in an interrogative mood, but we can still inflect it as a shout.

Are you telling me you want to go see that?!

This ironic mood also turns up as an interrogative declaration and as a declarative question, but the end punctuation doesn't change as it did in the examples above. This is because question marks and exclamation points are considered strong inflections, whereas periods signal the absence of inflection.

It didn't get very good reviews, did it.
In fact, it got terrible reviews, didn't it?


QUOTED SENTENCES

What happens when the sentences we quote have starkly different moods and end punctuation to our own? Most of the time their moods are in harmony with ours, but sometimes situations occur in which these moods conflict. Explaining the phenomenon and the rules needed to manage it is tediously complex, as you'll see. In fact, earlier in this section, I compared sentence moods to card suits. Whether or not you know how to play card games, you can appreciate that all games have a consistent set of rules. Though quotes allow for many different combinations of moods, you can at least remain grounded by three steadfast rules about sentence moods and punctuating quotations:

  • Grammar abhors redundancy.
  • The stronger mood always sets the tone.
  • Two strong moods in competition must both be heard.
Host Sentences and Guest Sentences

A quotation is a guest voice that you host inside your own sentence. Think of it exactly as you would any guest you've invited to a dinner party. You want to make guests feel welcome, but at the same time you want to respect and acknowledge their relationship to you.

Declarative Hosts and Declarative or Imperative Guests

When your good friends come over, everyone's an equal, and moods are in harmony. That's analogous to inviting a declarative or imperative quotation into your own declarative or imperative sentence. Everyone's "on the same page," so one period is all you need:

Early twentieth century French author Marcel Proust humorously suggests that a fashionable milieu is determined by whether "everybody's opinion is made up of the opinion of all the others."

In this example, Proust's quote is a declarative sentence, and so is the sentence that introduces the Proust quote. They both conclude at the same time, so we need only one period that, in the sentence, binds them. Right now, however, you're hearing the voice of Gollum in your head, tempting you to take all that power for yourself: "If one period is all I need," you're saying, "why not put it outside the quotation? Why not punctuate my sentence with it, instead of the quotation?" Short answer: because you're the host, and it's polite.

If the Proust quote did not coincide with the end of the sentence, nothing would change: one period would still be all that's necessary because the sentence introducing the quote is still declarative. However, we would need another weak-force punctuation, a comma, to separate the Proust quote from the sentence introducing it:

Early twentieth century French author Marcel Proust humorously suggests that when "everybody's opinion is made up of the opinion of all the others," a fashionable milieu is born.
Declarative Hosts and Interrogative Guests

Not every houseguest, however, is necessarily on an equal footing. Sometimes you invite your grandparents or your in-laws—people who have a more powerful mood, for good or for bad, than your home normally has. They, too, have to be honored and respected, but no matter what mood they bring to your dinner party, you defer to it because you're compelled to respect them. This is what happens when you quote a sentence that has a stronger mood than the one you've written to introduce it. When questions or exclamations are quoted inside declarative statements, you defer to their end punctuation:

Early twentieth century French author Marcel Proust humorously suggests that a fashionable milieu is determined by whether "everybody's opinion is made up of the opinion of all the others. Has everybody a different opinion?" If so, the result is a literary milieu.

In the example above, the quote ends on an interrogative note, a strong mood, whereas the sentence that introduces the quote is still declarative (as is the sentence following the quote). Where, then, is the period needed to punctuate the declarative sentence? It defers to the mood of the quotation and does not assert itself. It keeps quiet and lets the interrogative mood express itself.

If, however, that quoted question did not coincide with the end of the sentence, then the moody guest has left before the party ends, and the period can express itself freely:

Early twentieth century French author Marcel Proust humorously suggests that a fashionable milieu is determined by whether "everybody's opinion is made up of the opinion of all the others. Has everybody a different opinion?" however, the result then is a literary milieu.

It may seem counterintuitive at first to leave that question mark in the quote when the sentence you're writing continues on, but that's the rule. The strong mood of our guest sentences must be acknowledged, no matter what, whether interrogative or exclamatory.

Interrogative Hosts and Interrogative Guests

Sometimes, though, dinner parties are not informal affairs. Sometimes they are diplomatic events in which the host has a strong mood, and the invited guests bring their strong mood to the same table. The situation is similar to inviting laid-back friends in that everyone's equal, except that everyone is also formal and powerful. Strong voices, of course, can be allied:

How did early twentieth century French author Marcel Proust, finish the following question: "A fashionable milieu is one in which everybody's opinion is made up of the opinion of all the others. Has everybody a different opinion?"

In this example, both the quotation and the sentence that introduces it are interrogative. Grammar abhors redundancy, so only one question mark is needed to end both. The host politely gives the guest the privilege of wearing the badge of punctuation. If, however, the quotation hadn't coincided with the end of the sentence, another question mark would have been necessary.

When early twentieth century French author Marcel Proust quipped, "A fashionable milieu is one in which everybody's opinion is made up of the opinion of all the others. Has everybody a different opinion?" what answer does he give to his own question?
Exclamatory or Interrogative Hosts, and Declarative Guests

There's always that one clashing mood, though. Sometimes, a guest is in a bad mood or an irritatingly good mood when you're not. Sometimes you're in a bad mood when you guests are just laid-back. In writing sentences with quotations, when the mood of your host sentence clashes with, or is stronger than, the mood of the guest sentence, the punctuation outside the quote has to reflect that. When the mood of the quotation is weaker, nothing goes inside the quote:

Proust's elitist and priggish attitude is detestable, especially when he says things like, "A fashionable milieu is one in which everybody's opinion is made up of the opinion of all the others. Has everybody a different opinion? Then it is a literary milieu"!

That exclamation point at the end sets the tone of the host sentence, not the guest quotation, which is a declarative sentence. Declaratives are weaker than exclamations, so the period keeps quiet and defers to the host's stronger voice.

Exclamatory Hosts and Interrogative Guests

However, if the guest and the host both have strong, conflicting moods, then it's the clash of the Titans. Both voices must be acknowledged and punctuated accordingly:

Don't ever ask me, "Are you a fan of Proust?"! Wouldn't it be far better to say, "Proust is the most irritating French writer of his time!"?

For the record, Marcel Proust is a sublime writer with an understated wit. His book, Remembrance of Things Past, is groundbreaking in its narrative technique and set the tone for the way contemporary creative nonfiction is written.

So, in honor of Proust, celebrate a “remembrance” of at least these three rules about sentence moods and punctuating quotations:

  • Grammar abhors redundancy.
  • The stronger mood sets the tone.
  • Two strong moods in competition must both be heard.
Last Updated: 02/09/2015
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