Question Mark

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Question Marks
If a question mark is part of a quotation, it's placed inside the closing quotation mark (Joan asked, "Are you happy here?"). If it's a part of the main sentence but not a part of the quotation, it's placed outside the closing quotation mark (Did Joan say, "We're all happy here"?). Ben Miners/Getty Images

A question mark is a punctuation symbol (?) placed at the end of a sentence or phrase to indicate a direct questionShe asked, "Are you happy to be home?" Also called an interrogation point, note of interrogation, or question point.

As a general rule, question marks are not used at the end of indirect questionsShe asked me if I was happy to be home

In A History of Writing (2003), Steven Roger Fischer notes that the question mark "first appeared around the eighth or ninth century in Latin manuscripts, but did not appear in English until 1587 with the publication of Sir Philip Sidney's Arcadia."

Examples and Observations

  • "What exactly constitutes a dumb question? A dumb question is a question that reveals you did nothing to prepare for the class."
    (David Cass,The Strategic Student. Uvize, 2011)
  • "Why hadn't anyone ever told him that movies could come back to haunt you?"
    (Gish Jen,"Birthmates." Ploughshares, 1995
  • "You see things; and you say, 'Why?' But I dream things that never were; and I say, 'Why not?'"
    (George Bernard Shaw, Back to Methuselah, 192
  • "How can you govern a country that has 246 varieties of cheese?"
    (Charles De Gaulle, President of France, 1958-1969)
  • "Ever tried? Ever failed? No Matter, try again, fail again, fail better."
    (Samuel Beckett
  • "Take your life in your own hands and what happens? A terrible thing: no one to blame."
    (Erica Jong)
  • "How do you know when there's enough of anything? What trips the lever that snaps up the STOP sign ? What electrical currents fizz and crackle in the brain to shape the decision to quit a place?"
    (Annie Proulx, "The Half-Skinned Steer" in Close Range: Wyoming Stories. Scribner, 1999)  
  • "Daniel threw his napkin on the table and asked if I was ready.
    "'Ready?' I asked, thoroughly confused.
    '"To go,'" he said."
    (Teresa McClain-Watson, Surviving Mr. Right. Sepia, 2002)

How and When to Use (and Not to Use) a Question Mark

  • "A question mark should never be placed next to a comma, nor should it be next to a period unless it is part of an abbreviation. . . . Question marks should not generally be doubled for emphasis or paired with exclamation points. . . .
  • "Like a period, a question mark should come before the second of a pair of parentheses or brackets only when it applies to what is within them."
  • (The Manual of Scientific Style: A Guide for Authors, Editors, and Researchers, ed. by Harold Rabinowitz and Suzanne Vogel. Academic Press, 2009)
  • "When a question is a polite request or an instruction to which an affirmative response is assumed, a question mark is not necessary: Will you call me as soon as he arrives. [polite request]"
  • (Gerald J. Alred, Charles T. Brusaw, and Walter E. Oliu, The Business Writer's Companion, 6th ed. Bedford/St. Martin's, 2011)
  • "The question mark supersedes the comma that normally is used when supplying attribution for a quotation: 'Who is there?' she asked."
  • (The Associated Press Stylebook 2015, ed. by David Minthorn et al. Basic Books, 2015)

More Uses and Misuses of Question Marks

  • "A question mark in parentheses is sometimes used to underline sarcasm or for other humorous effect: With friends (?) like that, you don't need enemies." (Anne Waddingham, New Hart's Rules: The Oxford Style Guide, 2nd ed. Oxford University Press, 2014)
  • "There is [one] misuse of the question mark that deserves more serious comment, namely its intrusion in indirect questions, such as:
  • He asked me why I was so silent?
  • This is definitely wrong. The original question mark of 'Why are you so silent?' must give way to a full-stop [period] when the question is converted by 'He asked me' into its indirect form, for the sentence as a whole has now become a statement." (C.V. Carey, Mind the Stop. Pelican Books, 1971)
  • "In linguistics, we see [the question mark] as an alternative symbol for the glottal stop and also to mark a doubtfully acceptable sentence, such as ?I gave a nudge to John." (David Crystal, Making a Point. St. Martin's Press, 2015)

The Conversational Mark of Punctuation

"The question mark, used well, may be the most profoundly human form of punctuation. Unlike the other marks, the question mark--except perhaps when used in a rhetorical question--imagines the Other. It envisions communication not as assertive but as interactive, even conversational.

"The question is the engine of debates and interrogations, of mysteries, solved and secrets to be revealed, of conversations between student and teacher, of anticipation and explanation. There are Socratic questions, of course, where the interrogator already knows the answer. But more powerful is the open-ended question, the one that invites the other to act as the expert in telling his own experience."
(Roy Peter Clark, The Glamour of Grammar. Little, Brown, 2010)

The Lighter Side of Question Marks

"If you shoot at mimes, should you use a silencer?"

(Steven Wright)

"If there are no stupid questions, then what kind of questions do stupid people ask? Do they get smart just in time to ask questions?" (Scott Adams)

Ron Burgundy: You stay classy, San Diego. I'm Ron Burgundy?

Ed Harken: Dammit. Who typed a question mark on the Teleprompter?

(Will Ferrell and Fred Willard, Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, 2004)