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What Are Question Marks? (Punctuation Lesson)

What Are Question Marks? (Punctuation Lesson)

A question mark is used to indicate the end of a question. For example:
  • Really?
  • If I were two-faced, would I be wearing this one? (Abraham Lincoln, 1809-1865)
  • If there is no God, who pops up the next Kleenex? (Art Hoppe)
  • What's another word for Thesaurus? (Steven Wright)

Question Marks to Show Inflection

Occasionally, in informal writing, a question mark can be used to turn a statement into a question. The question mark tells the reader to add question inflection to the sentence. For example:
  • You won the lottery?
  • She has a motorbike licence?
Question marks are also used for statements transformed into questions by inflected words or question tags at the end. For example:

Inflected Words
  • You won the lottery, eh?
  • I'll see you at 6 o'clock, okay?
Question Tags
  • You won the lottery, didn't you?
  • (This sentence is transformed into a question by the question tag didn't you. Most of the time, the question tag is negative if the statement is positive and vice versa. Look at the example below.)
  • You didn't win the lottery, did you?
  • (The question tag is positive because the statement is negative.)
  • You won the lottery, did you?
  • (Sometimes, particularly to express surprise, a positive tag can be used with a positive statement.)
Read more about questions (interrogative sentences).

Using (?) For Uncertainty

Sometimes, in informal writing, a question mark in brackets is used to express uncertainty. For example:
  • All (?) the staff will be attending the briefing.
  • (Here, the author is questioning whether all the staff literally means all the staff.)
  • A lot of men (?) find ironing therapeutic.
  • (Here, the author is suggesting that "real" men would not find ironing therapeutic.)
Note: Using (?) is lazy. Avoid it in formal documents.

Be Mindful of Indirect Questions

An indirect question is a question embedded inside a statement (i.e., a declarative sentence) or another question (i.e., an interrogative sentence).

Do not use a question mark when an indirect is embedded within a statement. For example:
  • He asked if I had seen the film yet.
  • (This is an example of an indirect question. The direct question is "Have you seen the film yet?")
  • I'm unsure whether the wether will weather the weather?
  • (This is not a question. The direct question is "Will the wether [a ram] weather the weather?")

A Polite Request Dressed Up As a Question

Often, a polite request comes in the form a question. There is a lot of leniency on whether such a sentence is ended with a question mark or a full stop / period. For example:
  • Would all those in the back row who have been primed to ask a question please find a seat in the front three rows.
  • (This is a question. However, it is meant as an instruction. As it straddles the ideas of an imperative sentence (a command) and an interrogative sentence (a question), it is acceptable to end it with a full stop / period. A question mark is also acceptable. You can let your instinct guide you.)

Be Mindful of Questions That Look Like Statements

Sometimes, a question feels like a statement. Be sure to use a question mark for a question. For example:
  • Do you realize if it weren't for Edison, we'd be watching TV by candlelight? (Al Boliska)

Question Marks in Quotations

When used with quotation marks, a question mark follows logic. In other words, it will be inside the quotation if the quotation is a question, but it will be outside if the whole sentence is a question. For example:
  • She said, "Have you finished?" () ()
  • She said, "Have you finished?". () ()
  • (This is unwieldy but acceptable, particularly in the UK. In the US, this is an unpopular convention.)
  • Did she say, "You have finished"? () ()
  • Did she say, "Have you finished?"? () ()
  • (This is unwieldy but acceptable, particularly in the UK. In the US, this is an unpopular convention.)
Here is a real example:
  • When a man tells you that he got rich through hard work, ask him, "Whose?" (Don Marquis, 1878-1937)
Read more punctuation inside or outside quotation marks.

The Inverted Question Mark

In Spanish, a question is introduced with an inverted question mark. For example:
  • ¿Qué es eso?
  • (What is that?)
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