Using the Question Mark

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This is a guest post by Steven Pittsley. If you want to write for Daily Writing Tips check the guidelines here.

Although often taken for granted, the question mark can be used for more than ending a direct question. Really? Yes.

The question mark was first seen in the eighth century when it was called the punctus interrogativus. There are many theories about the origin of the symbol, which has changed several times before settling on its current form in the eighteenth century. For example, the Latin word for question is quaestio, which was abbreviated to ‘Qo’ in the Middle Ages. It’s thought that the modern symbol represents the ‘Q’ placed over the ‘O’.

Regardless of its origin, the question mark can be used in a variety of ways. One such use is to end a verb-less sentence. Although verb-less sentences may not be considered proper sentences in some circles, they are used quite frequently. Some examples include:

  • What?
  • When?
  • Where?
  • Really?

Ending a tag question is another use for the question mark. A tag question is a statement that is followed by a question, such as:

  • He left early, didn’t he?
  • The recipe calls for one cup sugar, right?

In a sentence containing a series of questions, you may include a question mark after each. Be careful with this type of writing. Although the use of a question mark is accepted, readers may find a long string of questions confusing.

  • Who saw the victim last? Her husband? Her son? Her daughter?
  • Which way are we supposed to turn at the corner? Right? Left?

Two places where the question mark should not be used are at the end of indirect questions or courteous requests. Although these types of sentences may seem to be questions, they do not require the use of the question mark.

  • I asked my son if there were any messages.
  • Will you please reply as soon as possible.

Although the choice to use the question mark us usually a fairly easy decision, some situations like these can make you think twice.

You can follow Steven on Twitter @drumming4you.

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7 thoughts on “Using the Question Mark”

  1. You left off a usage which, though improper, is quite common. The question mark is often used, especially in dialogue, either written or spoken (if you will allow me to say a “question mark” is used in speech), at the end of a statement that implies an internal question, the most common of which is the statement of wondering something.

    What should be a simple declarative statement (“I wonder if she ever got home.”) is rendered as a question, thus: “I wonder if she ever got home?”

    I wonder if they realize that drives me nuts. 🙂

  2. I would disagree with the final example: “Will you please reply as soon as possible?”. I think a very good and easy rule for the application of a question mark is to use one if, when spoken, the word or sentence ends with an upward lilt; a verbal question mark. This type of sentence seems to do so, do you not agree?

  3. My understanding is that both the question mark and the exclamation mark denote tone of voice and thus do not necessary end the sentence—i.e., it can be perfectly correct for the word following either of these to be uncapitalized and part of the same sentence. Examples taken from The Reader Over Your Shoulder, by Robert Graves and Alan Hodge:

    ‘And then, horror! in marched Mrs. Blackstone with the little corpse held out accusingly between the pincers of the kitchen fire-tongs!’

    ‘That she had asked herself, was he really there? or was she imagining things? now troubled her conscience.’

  4. I would agree with Jeff’s comment. The same thought made me click through my reader to see what others had said. The inverted construction of the subject and verb is an obvious mark of a question. If you changed the pronoun (will he reply?), it’s a question. I’d caution the guide of an upward lilt because of the phenomenon of up-speak first seen in “valley girls” and now popular in various settings. You know what I mean? (Though that’s I guess is technically a colloquial statement that has dropped of the “Do” and then it’s a standard question construction again.)

  5. I think the use is not so complicated, but I REALLY NEED to know if this sentence is correct or not : Did he asked me “What is it?”?

    Please HELP!!!

  6. @rm: No, the question mark in your example goes outside the quotation marks: the question is not the quoted matter, but the statement around it.

    @novvie: Your statement, save for a typo (“asked” should be “ask”) looks correct to me: there’s a question mark for the quoted matter, another for the overall sentence. This seems to be in all essential respects the same as:

    He asked me, “What is it?”.

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