Imagine you're sitting in a theater as Hamlet arrives at its pivotal point and the protagonist ponders whether or not to go on living. He utters those now-famous words, "To be, or not to be, that is the question." Now imagine another character strolling across the stage and answering, "that's a really good question."
Wouldn't happen? I'm not so sure. After all, when was the last time you heard some newsmaker presented with a query and not begin the response with "that's a really good question"?
These days every question seems to be very good or excellent; apparently we're living in the golden age of Q and A. It just snuck up on us while we weren't watching.
I do understand the popularity, even the advisability of the response: we all want a moment to gather our thoughts and arrive at a better, more organized, and maybe more cogent reply. It's probably better than "give me a minute on that one" or "I'll get back to you in a day or two." Still, not all questions are excellent, especially when a person's only reason for being there is to answer that question.
The early years of this millennium were the "SO" years when we began answering every query—indeed, beginning every sentence— with "so."
Waiter: May I take your order?
Diner: So I'll have....
The "so" never made any sense to me, never seemed the result of anything, but I was sucked in by it and became a reluctant devotee. But now that I've caved, "so" has been replaced by the equally pervasive newcomer. I hate to think of how many times I've used this one. And that, I shudder to say, really is a ...well...very worthwhile interrogative construction. (Whew!)
I guess the important thing now is for us to keep the phrase out of other areas—like entertainment. We don't want movie dialogue like this:
[Harry Callahan] You gotta ask yourself a question: Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?
[Punk] That's an excellent question, Mr. Dirty Harry.
And poor Lou Costello screaming, "Who's on first." If Bud Abbott had answered, "that's an excellent question, pal," it's unlikely we'd remember either Abbott or Costello.
And please let's keep it away from the beautiful Shekaepearean sonnets and avoid answering
"Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?"
with something like
"That's a very good question, Mr. Smitten Suitor."
Also, next time you're reading T.S. Eliot (probably not today), don't compliment the excellence of the question when Prufrock asks, "Do I dare to eat a peach?" Just tell him to eat the damn thing.
And finally, leave musical queries alone. Even old numbers like the Elvis Presley lament, "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" or the Who's "Who Are You?" or the old doo-wop classic "Why Do Fools Fall in Love?" Are they excellent questions? Do we have to say so? And the second line of the Clash's "Should I Stay or should I go?—do we have to sing back "That's a really good question"?
What's lurking next? Well, "full stop" seems to have replaced "period" to express finality. I suppose when a parent says to a child, "No car until your grades improve, period," today's child may sense some leeway until he hears "full stop." My parents never used "full stop" with me. Period worked fine. I knew enough to stop fully.
End of story.