Grammar AdviceGrammar, Advice
ServiceScape Incorporated
ServiceScape Incorporated
2018

The Question Mark: Its Many Uses

We all ask myriad questions each and every day. This is how we gather information, make assessments, and decide what moves to make next. The question mark, also known as the eroteme or interrogation point, is how we set a question apart from other types of statements in writing. However, the question mark is not a one-trick pony in the punctuation world. It has a fuzzy history and many uses that help English speakers communicate in very specific ways.

The history of the question mark

The question mark's history is full of fun stories that try to explain its curved nature. One story attributes the question mark's shape to a cat's tail. Such a cat would be an inquisitive one, wanting to know the answers to everything in its feline life. Some say that this "questioning cat" lived in ancient Egypt, where cats were often worshipped and preserved in artwork. Unfortunately, this idea has no basis in facts.

Another story that tries to explain the shape of the curvy punctuation mark takes us back to the Middle Ages. The story goes that scholars during that time would write the Latin "quaestio" at the end of a sentence to tell readers that the sentence was a question. Over time, the process was shortened bit by bit until only the "q" and the "o" remained, with the "q" being written over the "o." As you can imagine, a further reduction of those letters can give the appearance of the question mark we see today. Once again, however, there really is no solid evidence to back up this story.

The real story is that in the Middle Ages punctuation used dots at different levels to show various uses in the sentence. One scholar, Alcuin of York, realized that the limitations of this system needed to be addressed and updated. He created what was called the point of interrogation. He used a symbol similar to a tilde above a dot to represent the rise in tone the speaker would use if he or she were speaking the sentence out loud. Despite its use as an exclamation mark as well, the point of interrogation was kept around until the 17th century, when its form and specific use in question statements evolved.

Various uses of the question mark

You would think that a question mark would be used only one way—at the end of a sentence that is asking a question. Well, the question mark is used for more than just that! In fact, there are quite a few ways that this mark can be used, both formal and informal.

Basic interrogatives

First, the most widely known use of the question mark is in a basic interrogative sentence:

  • Why did the chicken cross the road?
  • How did you make that cake?

This usage basically indicates that the person asking the question wants to know a specific piece of information that he or she doesn't already know. The reader knows this because of the phraseology and the curved punctuation mark at the end—the question mark.

Statements as questions

Second, which is associated with the first use, is turning a statement into a question. Basically, the person asking the question is assuming or hoping for a specific answer in response. These types of questions are asked when the speaker already knows the information, but she is just confirming it.

  • He didn't actually say that, did he?
  • You're going to finish this project by tonight, right?

The examples above demonstrate that the question posed is essentially a confirmation of the information, as opposed to the first use where the speaker doesn't have the information at all.

Confirmations

Third, some statements are presented with a simple word or phrase at the end that is requesting confirmation from the listener. This type of word or phrase is called a question tag. When these endings are spoken out loud, the speaker's vocal tone is raised—a trait that the question mark helps portray in writing. Say, for example, you tell someone to leave you a message while simultaneously wanting them to confirm that he understands your request:

  • Just leave me a message, ok?
  • Feed the cat in the morning and the evening, got it?

The part of the sentence before the comma could be a statement on its own. "Just leave me a message." There is no question mark. But, if a confirmation from the listener is desired, it can become a question simply by adding "ok?" at the end. Pretty cool!

Questions as part of a statement

Fourth, in narrative writing sometimes a question is posed as part of a statement.

  • She wondered, how could she put herself in this situation again?
  • Why would they have this meeting without me? the boss wondered.

While some authors keep these kinds of statements as just statements, others want to emphasize that the character is thinking something. To do that, they format the statements as in the examples above to set the questions apart from the statement as a whole. This literary tactic can be useful in keeping the reader immersed in the character's mind set or in the situation being presented. This usage is not often used in formal writing, however. There generally isn't much use for this format outside of narrative writing.

Series of questions

Fifth, similar to the fourth use, a question mark can be used to separate questions in a series that are not expanded into complete sentences on their own.

  • We were trying to decide where to run. Through the narrow streets? Straight home? Generally south?
  • There are many investment options we need to consider. Stocks? Bonds? Real estate?

This particular format can be used in either formal or informal writing, but it isn't used very often in formal writing.

Uncertain information

Sixth, a question mark can be used to identify areas in text where there is unknown or uncertain information. The question mark is often used in this manner in historical texts and references. Some nonfiction narratives will even employ this to ensure they are not making assumptions seem as facts in the text.

  • Guillerme Babin, 1510 (?) – 1582, was a farmer in the French Trébrivan area.
  • Upon their arrival in 1764 (?), the settlers discovered remains from previous inhabitants.

This usage is a good way for writers to show that they are somewhat sure of the dates, but that there could be some discrepancies.

How to use a question mark

Style guides often have their own requirements for punctuation. With a question mark, however, the requirements are somewhat standard across all styles. The format of using a question mark in English is simple when it's used in a plain question sentence. Just pose the question and add the question mark at the end of it.

  • Where are you going?
  • What did you buy at the store?

Things get a bit more complicated, however, when there are other punctuation marks in the vicinity of the question mark. For example, if the writer is quoting someone who is asking a question, where does the question mark go? Does it go inside or outside the quotation marks? It gets even trickier, though. What if quotation marks are used for emphasis around a phrase or a word that is not a quote from a character or a source? Here are a few examples to help.

Dialogue quotes—inside the quotation marks

  • "What time do you want to meet?" she asked.
  • When he returned, he asked, "How long was I gone?"

Emphasis quotation marks—outside the quotation marks

  • How did the researcher collect data for the parameters "Lunch" and "Dinner"?
  • Does the database table have a field for "price"?

Notice in the dialogue examples that there was no comma added after the question mark or the closing quotation mark. This style convention is different from dialogue quotations that are statements. With a statement, a comma is used alone just before the ending quotation mark, as in the following example:

  • "We should meet at your place," she said.

However, there is one additional case for the emphasis example. In the examples above, the question mark applied to the entire sentence. That is why the question mark was placed outside the quotation mark. When the sentence is not an interrogative, but the text placed inside the quotation marks is, then the question mark goes inside the quotation marks and no other ending punctuation is required.

  • I don't believe it is effective to have an attitude of "what about me?"

Parentheses are other punctuation used with the question mark that might confuse writers. The rules for this type of usage are pretty straightforward. If the statement inside the parentheses is a complete sentence, then put the question mark inside the ending parenthesis and add other ending punctuation at the end of the main sentence.

  • I took the wrong road (Why didn't I look at the map?) and ended up lost.
  • She ran up the stairs in her heels (Couldn't she have just taken them off?).

On the other hand, if the statement inside the parentheses is not a complete sentence, then the question mark goes outside the closing parenthesis.

  • Why did you put that in the report (maybe a bit superfluous)?
  • Why did she go to the market even though she didn't have a shopping list (as far as I know, anyway)?

Other formatting styles to keep in mind with question marks are italicizing and underlining. When a question is italicized or underlined for emphasis, then the question mark should have the same formatting as the text it corresponds to. Following the guidelines for quotation marks above, if the question mark follows an italicized question, then it also is italicized. If it is not directly associated with the italicized text, then it is not italicized (a font not italicized is also called roman font).

  • Why wasn't she made manager? (italicized question mark)
  • Weren't parameters included for page count and binding type? (roman question mark)

Other languages

While English is the most familiar, other languages use the question mark in a similar way as well. These languages include German, French, Spanish, and computing languages.

German

  • Hallo, wie geht es Ihnen? (formal: Hello, how are you?)

French

  • Où allez-vous ? (Where are you going?)

Notice that there is an extra space before the punctuation mark in the French sentence.

Spanish

Due to the nature of its grammatical structure, Spanish also includes an upside-down question mark to tell the reader immediately that the sentence is a question. This usage is recent, however, and started around the mid-1700s.

  • ¿Cómo estás? (How are you?)

Computing

In HTML, question marks have a specific code designation instead of being written just as a question mark. Sometimes the question mark is used as what is called a "wildcard" character. A wildcard is a character that can be used in place of any one character.

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