When Is a Question Not a Question?

By Mark Nichol

Inclusion or exclusion of a question mark is usually a straightforward matter. However, there are instances in which what are framed as questions should end with other punctuation, and occasionally, a statement might be followed by a question mark. A discussion of exceptions to basic use of the question mark follows.

Questions are statements of inquiry intended to elicit a response — for example, “What is the matter with you?” — but not all inquiries or seeming inquiries are, technically, questions.

Depending on context, a sentence may or may not merit a question mark. For example, the rhetorical question “You didn’t break my antique vase,” uttered in an alarmed tone after the speaker has witnessed that very action, would be voiced with downward inflection. The speaker is not asking for a response; he or she is essentially thinking out loud while processing the traumatic incident.

But if the speaker asks someone to confirm that his or her suspicion of the other person’s complicity is unfounded, he or she would ask, with an upward inflection, “You didn’t break my antique vase?”

In a declarative or imperative sentence expressing disbelief, doubt, or surprise, a question mark is acceptable: “This is what it has come to?” However, an exclamation point can preempt a question mark in an emotionally expressed question: “How do you know that!”

Indirect questions, like “I wondered what she was talking about,” should not end with a question mark. Likewise, an exclamation that superficially appears to be a question — for example, “Was she ever surprised!” — is just that: an exclamation.

Question marks should not follow questions that are disguised requests: “Could you please close the door on your way out.” (In writing, such requests are best rendered more concisely: “Please close the door on your way out.”)

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7 Responses to “When Is a Question Not a Question?”

  • Silvia G. Martínez

    Mark sorry but wouldn’t have been better: When a question is not a question?

  • Jason Pos

    This is why we have the interrobang. The combined question and exclamation mark. Check it on Wikipedia for a simple expanation.

  • Curtis

    Your mention of inflection brings to mind the practice of “up-talking,” a speech mannerism attributed to Valley Girls, in which ordinary statements end in an upward inflection so that they sound like queries. I’m surprised anyone still does this.

  • Bill

    Those of us who’ve taught English as a second language may be familiar with two rare instances in which the intonation of a statement and a question can be identical:
    He wouldn’t do that, would he?
    He wouldn’t do that, Woody.
    and
    He isn’t coming, is he?
    He isn’t coming, Izzy.

  • Bill

    Curtis, if anything, I’d say that teen upspeak, as I’ve heard it called, is more prevalent than ever. It’s mostly among girls and young women but I sometimes hear it from men. I agree that it’s surprising that anyone still does it and find it maddening to hear female experts say things like, “Economic growth may be limited to less than two percent this year?”

  • Dale A. Wood

    Well, Mr. Nichol, what do you think of an exclamation point AND a question mark both at the end, such as in:
    “How do you know that!?”
    “Why on Earth did you do that!?”
    “Have you taken leave of your senses!?”
    “Have you lost your mind!?”

    There is also a German idiom that translates into English as:
    “What Devil has gotten into you!?”

    I also got a book of German cartoons that either don’t have any captions or they don’t need any. (If they are German, you don’t need to understand them.”)
    In my favorite, there is a bathroom with a tub in it, and on the wall above hang busts of Socrates, Napoleon, and Abraham Lincoln. The woman of the house has the bathtub completely filled with water, and she is walking around on the water. Her husband walked in, saw her, and addressed her.

    Clearly, he is saying something that translates as:
    “So now, you want to be Jesus Christ!?”

    Clearly, that man has a wife who is very bossy, she thinks that she is very smart, and she thinks that she is all-powerful.

    LOL, Dale

  • Jan Arzooman

    I’m having a difficult time with this.

    “In a declarative or imperative sentence expressing disbelief, doubt, or surprise, a question mark is acceptable: ‘This is what it has come to?'”
    I would agree that a question mark is needed because the speaker is asking a question.

    “However, an exclamation point can preempt a question mark in an emotionally expressed question: ‘How do you know that!'”
    I’d use a question mark in that example. Even if emotionally expressed, it’s still a question.

    What would you use with the following: “Ladies and gentlemen, may I have your attention, please.” (I would use a question mark, but based on your column now I’m wondering if that’s right — in the context, the sentence was shouted, so it could also get an exclamation point).

    Is it wrong to combine a question mark and an exclamation point, and what might be the rule as to which goes first?

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