Question Marks (Uses and Examples)

by Craig Shrives

Question Marks

A question mark is used to show where a question ends. For example:
  • Really?
  • If I were two-faced, would I be wearing this one? (President Abraham Lincoln)
  • If there is no God, who pops up the next Kleenex? (Author Art Hoppe)
  • What's another word for Thesaurus? (Comedian Steven Wright)
question mark use and examples

Question Marks to Show Inflection

Occasionally, most commonly in story-telling prose, a question mark is used to turn a sentence structured like statement into a question. The question mark tells the reader to add question inflection to the sentence. For example:
  • You won the lottery?
  • She passed her motorbike test?
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. For example:
  • 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 parentheses (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.)

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 question is embedded within a statement. For example:
  • He asked if I had seen the film yet. correct tick
  • (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? wrong cross
  • (This is not a question. The direct question is "Will the wether [a ram] weather the weather?")
Read more about indirect questions.

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 period (full stop). 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 period (full stop). 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? correct tick (Canadian author 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?" correct tick (small British flag) correct tick (small American flag)
  • She said, "Have you finished?". correct tick (small British flag) wrong cross (small American flag)
  • (This is unwieldy but acceptable, particularly in the UK. In the US, this is an unpopular convention.)
  • Did she say, "You have finished"? correct tick (small British flag) correct tick (small American flag)
  • Did she say, "Have you finished?"? correct tick (small British flag) wrong cross (small American flag)
  • (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?" correct tick (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 (i.e., upside down) question mark. For example:
  • ¿Que es eso?
  • (What is that?)

How To Get an Upside Down Question Mark

In HTML (i.e., for your website), an "upside down question mark" is:
  • ¿
In Microsoft Word, there are two way to get an "upside down question mark":
  • 00bf (then press Alt+X)
  • Alt+Ctrl+? (which is Alt+Ctrl+Shift+/)

The Rhetorical Question Mark

A rhetorical question is a question for which no answer is expected.
  • What's not to like?
  • Wow, who knew he was so talented?
rhetorical question mark In the 1580s, to recognize that the rhetorical question was not a normal question, English printer Henry Denham invented the "rhetorical-question mark," which was a vertically reflected one. For a few years after its introduction, it seemed like the rhetorical-question mark would catch on. It didn't.
Read more about rhetorical questions. By far the most common error related to question marks is using a question mark for a non-question.

Don't use a question mark after a non-question.

  • She wants to know if you've arrived? wrong cross
  • I wonder if he will ever find his mojo? wrong cross
  • (These are not questions but statements. They should end in periods (full stops).)
This mistake occurs most commonly when the statement contains an indirect question. In these examples, the direct questions would be "Have you arrived?" and "Will he ever find his mojo?". However, these are not direct questions. They are indirect question embedded within statements. Read more about indirect questions.

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