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by Scott Laughlin
I help aspiring marketing leaders learn the ropes. Specialties include search engine optimization, product management, a...

How Do You Use Question Marks?


The question mark is one of the most recognizable punctuation marks in English, and really, any Romance Language. Along with interrogative words, it transforms a written sentence from a declaration to a question. 


But what is a question mark, and how do we use them? Do all written questions end with one? These are some of the matters we’ll discuss, so that by the time you’re done reading, you’ll know the complete role of the question mark and how it functions in our written language.


What is the Question Mark?


As you probably already know, question marks are curvy little punctuation marks commonly added to the end of a sentence to denote a question. 


The origin story of this particular piece of punctuation is shrouded in mystery: some say the Ancient Egyptians used it in written correspondence and created the mark itself to resemble a cat’s tail. Others say it was developed by scholars in the Middle Ages, gradually developing the symbol from the Latin word for question, quaestio. 


Most historical linguists believe, however, that an English scholar working in the court of Charlemagne designed the question mark and it was used inconsistently from there on. It was not until the 17th century that scholars used it regularly, and not until the 19th that it was formally dubbed the question mark.


How Do You Use Question Marks?



Sure, you add a question mark to the end of questions, but it has other uses and limitations. 


When you ask a question of someone verbally, you often inflect your voice at the end of the sentence to indicate you are asking someone something. This is especially true if you didn’t start the sentence with an interrogative word (what, do/did, how, why, when, who, where). If your sentence does begin with one of these words, you do not necessarily inflect your voice when you end the question.


In written text, if a sentence starts with an interrogative word, most likely it will end with a question mark. 


But not all questions end with question marks. Some rhetorical questions do not end with question marks but rather with periods. Same with requests which when written, also end with a period. If a writer is skeptical about a statement that would typically seem like a question, they may bracket the question mark to note their skepticism to the reader. 


We will examine this in further depth next.


Do All Questions End with a Question Mark?



Next, we’ll take a look at which questions get question marks and which do not, with several examples to further illustrate the point.


As mentioned, written questions that begin with an interrogative word typically end with a question mark, such as with these common questions:


  • What time is it?

  • Where did you go to school?

  • How old is your dog?

  • Who is your favorite author?

  • When does homeroom start?

  • Did he text you yesterday?


These are typical questions that you ask in speech and writing. But you may also ask rhetorical questions. What are rhetorical questions? They are questions that you ask when you don’t expect a response since you may already know the answer. They are a literary device that you can use to begin a dialogue or state an opinion.


Here are a few examples of rhetorical questions:


  • Are you serious?

  • Okay?

  • Who knows?

  • It’s cloudy today, isn’t it?


With indirect questions, the speaker is making a declarative statement, albeit disguised as a question. They do not take question marks. Here is an example:


  • He went straight to basketball practice after class, I suppose.


  • She asked if I had time to go with her to the store this weekend.


If you write a request for someone, you do not always need to add a question mark to the end of the statement, especially if you are certain they will comply, such as with these examples:


  • Please contact us if you have any information.

  • Respond to the questionnaire before the end of the term.


However, if there is a chance the reader may refuse, give them a chance to do so by adding a question mark, like so:


  • Would you be able to water my plants when I’m out of town?

  • Can you bring the book to class today so we can share a copy?


Like the first set of questions, these requests are polite, although the question mark hinges on whether the reader has an option in saying yes or no. Take authority into consideration whenever you write someone a request to decide if a question mark is necessary or not.


Questions shrouded in skepticism may be written with a question mark in parenthesis. The idea is to convey to the reader your uncertainty about a stated action. For example:


  • I guess she thinks we’ll help her pass the exam without her even asking us (?)

  • How believable is it that he just went on vacation to rest...(?)


By adding parentheses to question marks in sentences such as these, you’re stating your opinion about a questionable claim. It tells whoever is reading your statement that you doubt the intentions of someone or something.


Do Question Marks Go Inside or Outside Quotes?


One of the most common concerns writers have about the use of question marks is their position within quotations. If you’re writing dialogue, and your character is “speaking” and has a question, where does the question mark go, inside or outside the quotes?


It’s all about context, which we must always consider in order to create great writing.


Place the question mark within the quote if the question only applies to that fragment. Place it outside the quote if it applies to the whole sentence. Compare these two sentences to see the difference:


  • “Can we clean the kitchen tomorrow?” she asked him.

  • Where is his so-called “favorite place on the planet”?

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