Question Marks  

What is a question mark?

Question marks ( ? ) are used to identify sentences that ask a question (technically known as interrogative sentences). They almost always appear at the end of a sentence, marking its conclusion (though there is a specific exception to this rule, as we will see later). For example:
  • “Will you be joining us tonight?
  • “How are you feeling?
  • “This weather is wonderful, isn’t it?

Tag questions

Notice the last sentence, in which the question appears as a remark at the end. This is known as a tag question. It begins as a normal declarative sentence, but the “tag” right at the end makes it into a question. These are usually used for rhetorical effect, meaning that the speaker probably knows the answer or has a belief about what the answer should be, or else to indicate surprise or disbelief. For example:
  • “You’ll be home in time for dinner, right?
  • “They won’t have the report finished on time, will they?
  • “You can’t be serious, can you?
Tag questions can also be used with imperative sentences to add politeness to a request, invitation, or instruction. For instance:
  • “Have some more tea, won’t you?
  • “Help me dry these dishes, will you?

Other interrogative sentences

Some interrogative sentences consist of a declarative statement posed as a question. In speech, they are indicated by a rising intonation, but in writing we simply add a question mark to the end, such as:
  • “You won?
  • “It ended just like that?
  • “Excuse me?
Some questions can even be a single word. These are often “question words” (e.g. What?, Why?, When?, etc.), but they can consist of other words as well. For example:
  • Speaker A: “A package arrived for you.”
  • Speaker B: “When?”
  • Speaker A: “Sir, you need to move your car.”
  • Speaker B: “Me?”
  • Speaker A: “You didn’t eat all of your vegetables.”
  • Speaker B: “So?”
  • Speaker A: “Well?”
  • Speaker B: “Hold on, I’m thinking!”

Multiple minor questions

While a question mark almost always indicates the end of a sentence, there are some instances in which we can have multiple brief questions in a row within the same sentence. These act as qualifying questions to ask about specific possibilities stemming from the “main” question. When this happens, we don’t have to capitalize the questions that come after the first question mark. For example:
  • “How much pizza do you want? one slice? two slices?
  • “What’s that in the sky? a bird? a plane?
However, it is more common to see such cases capitalized, in which case they function as minor sentences:
  • “How often would you say you use the school’s online library? Once a year? Once a week? Once a day?

When not to use a question mark

Polite requests

When we make polite requests framed as questions, it is sometimes acceptable to omit the question mark at the end and simply use a period. This usually occurs with particularly long and formal questions that begin with the modal auxiliary verbs will or would, as in:
  • “Will all applicants please wait in the foyer until called for their interview.”
  • “Would any students who have not received their results please report to the principal’s office as soon as possible.”

Indirect questions

There are many cases in which a declarative sentence expresses uncertainty or indecision. These are known as indirect questions. While such sentences are very close in nature to direct questions, they are still declarations—we must remember not to use a question mark in such instances, even though it may seem correct to do so. If we want to change such statements of uncertainty to become true questions, we must reword them slightly. For example:

Using question marks with other punctuation

Question marks most often stand in isolation at the end of a sentence. However, when other punctuation marks are used alongside them, it’s important to know how and where the question mark should be used.

With periods (full stops)

A question mark will stand in place of a period when it is ending a question. However, if a period is used to mark an abbreviation that appears at the end of a question, we put the question mark outside (to the right of) the period, with no space between them. For example:
  • “Did you really meet Martin Luther King, Jr.?
  • “Is the meeting still on for Fri.?

With exclamation points

In informal writing, we sometimes use a question mark with an exclamation point to emphasize surprise or excitement about the question we are asking. Generally speaking, the exclamation point comes after the question mark. If the writer wants to add even more emphasis, the question mark/exclamation point combination can also be repeated. For example:
  • “What did you say to him?!
  • “You won the lottery?!?!
However, this construction is very informal, and it should only be reserved for casual communication between friends—do not use an exclamation point after a question mark in formal, professional, or academic writing. If you are asking a question, no matter how excited or emphatic, simply use a question mark on its own.

Multiple question marks

A very similar method of conveying surprise or excitement in a question is to use more than one question mark in a row—the more question marks used, the greater the degree of surprise or excitement:
  • “What did you say to him??
  • “You won the lottery???
Again, this is very informal, so you should only use it in casual written conversation (if at all).

The interrobang

There are instances in which it might seem more appropriate or accurate to include an exclamation point with a question mark. This has given rise to a unique punctuation mark known as the “interrobang” ( ), which is a combination of a question mark and exclamation point. If we were to use an interrobang in the two sentences above, they would look like this:
  • “What did you say to him
  • “You won the lottery
This is still not a formally recognized punctuation mark, so its use is not recommended in anything other than casual writing. (In fact, many readers might not even know what it is.)

With quotation marks

We use quotation marks to indicate the exact words used by someone else. This is known as direct speech or direct quotation.
When the quoted text is a complete question, the question mark will appear within the quotation marks, as in:
  • He asked, “How do I know they’re telling the truth?”
  • “When will this meeting be over?” he wondered to himself.
However, if the quoted text is a part of a larger interrogative sentence, then the question mark will fall outside of the quotation marks. For instance:
  • Did you know that he said he’ll “never go back to that city again”?
  • Why do you think we “don’t have a chance”?

With italicized and underlined text

As with quotations, if a question mark is a part of formatted text, it should use the same kind of formatting. This is especially relevant to italics, which are often used to distinguish the titles of bodies of work, such as books, films, or music albums. (Underlining is used this way too, though it is more common in handwriting than in print.) If a title contains a question mark, the question mark should appear with the same formatting as the rest of the title. For example:
  • “One of my favorite books is Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, by Philip K. Dick.”
  • “Tonight we’re going to watch Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
(Notice that although the second example is not a question, we still use the question mark as the final punctuation of the sentence.)
If the formatted text is a part of a larger question, we must be sure not to format the question mark, as in:
  • “Have you ever read For Whom the Bell Tolls?”
  • “Why don’t we listen to Pink Floyd’s The Wall?”

1. Question marks are used with what kinds of sentences?

2. What kinds of questions do not use question marks?

3. Which of the following sentences is not punctuated correctly?

4. An exclamation point should only be used directly after a question mark in ________________.

Further reading

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