Question Marks – How to Use Question Marks Correctly

Time to read: 5 Minutes
Question-Marks-Definition

Students often get nervous about question marks as they can be confusing. They indicate whether a sentence is an inquiry and should always be used correctly. In this guide, you will learn how you use question marks.

Question Marks – In a Nutshell

  • Question marks are used to indicate direct questions.
  • They can be used with questions that are embedded in statements, but should never be used with indirect questions.
  • You should never use multiple question marks and exclamation marks in academic writing.

Definition: Question marks

A question mark can be defined as a punctuation symbol that is placed at the end of a sentence or phrase to indicate that the statement is an inquiry. This symbol is also referred to as the interrogation point or note of interrogation. It resembles a hooked line and has a dot at the bottom.1

Question marks and quotation marks

When writing a direct question, the question mark will always be placed at the very end of the sentence. But what happens when you have to use quotation marks in the sentence? In such cases, you have to determine whether the question mark logically applies to the statement that is enclosed within the quotation marks.
If the question mark applies to the sentence as a whole instead of the phrase within the quotation marks, you will have to use the question mark outside the quotes.
In case the question mark applies to both the quoted section and the sentence as a whole, you can use it within the quotes.2

Here are some examples of correct usage of question marks and quotation marks:

  • John asked, “Who ate all the food?”
  • Have you heard of the phrase, ‘Did I offer peace today?’
  • Who said, “Rome wasn’t built in a day”?
  • “When I asked him about his eating habits, he asked, ‘Why are you concerned about my business?’” recalled the nurse.

Question marks and parentheses

The rules here are similar to those of quotation marks. If the question mark only applies to the phrase within the parentheses, you should use it within the brackets. On the other hand, if the question mark applies to the entire sentence, you have to use it at the very end of the sentence.³

Here are a few examples to illustrate:

  • My professor said he’s Swedish (Or was it Finnish?).
  • Will you come in tomorrow (around 3 o’clock)?

Question marks and indirect questions

Indirect questions never use question marks as they are declarative; they don’t require an answer. When said out loud, indirect questions will simply read like any other statement and won’t have a change of tone.

Here are some useful examples:

  • She asked why you didn’t attend the party.
  • I wondered whether my professor was actually Swedish.

Indirect questions vs. questions embedded in statements

Indirect questions are simply questions that are reported to other people rather than the exact wording of the original question.

For example, the original question may have been:

  • He asked, “Why were you crying?”

The indirect question, in this case, would be:

  • He asked why she was crying.

Indirect questions are different from questions that are embedded in statements and these two have to be punctuated differently.

Here is an example of a question that is embedded in a statement:

  • He asked why she was crying, and she said, “When?”

Multiple questions marks and exclamation points

In informal or casual writing, people often use multiple question marks and exclamation points to create emphasis. This style of writing is usually used when the statement is absurd, surprising, or exciting.

Here is an example to illustrate:

  • Did you hear that John won the lottery???

In formal writing, you will simply need to use one question mark. It might help to add emphasis if you add extra information.

For example:

  • Did you hear that John won the lottery? He’s been homeless for over a year!

Questions and question marks to avoid in academic writing

The following uses of questions marks should be avoided in academic writing.

Rhetorical question These questions are usually informal and shouldn’t be included in academic papers.
Requests You should also avoid making requests in your academic paper.

Statements that turn into questions These are also considered informal and should only be used in casual writing.
Multiple question marks While these can add emphasis to a question, they aren’t accepted in academic papers.

Here are some examples of questions and question marks that shouldn’t be used in academic writing:

  • Rhetorical question: Weren’t the early days of the internet great?
  • Request: Can you look up the word ‘alliteration’ on Google?
  • A statement that turns into a question: Donald Trump will run again?
  • Multiple question marks: Did you know that scientists have discovered a cure for cancer???

FAQs

Using a question mark in an inquiry statement is important as it helps the reader determine the nature of the sentence. Note that some questions are phrased just like declarative sentences and can be very confusing if they are not punctuated correctly.

In speech, it can be easy to determine which sentences are questions because of the tone used, but in writing, it can be difficult without the appropriate punctuation marks.1

You should use question marks whenever you write a direct question. Often, the symbol will be placed at the end of sentences that start with wh-words. These include who, what, why, where, when, and why.1

Rhetorical questions are those that don’t necessarily require an answer. In other words, the answer is implied through the question. Since these are questions in form only, they may or may not be written with the question mark.3

These punctuation marks can be used for polite requests that may not be automatically granted by the reader. However, if the reader has to comply or can’t reasonably give a negative answer, a period will be more appropriate.3

Sources

1 GrammarBook.com. “No Question About It.” Accessed September 06, 2022, https://www.grammarbook.com/blog/definitions/no-question-about-it/.

2 Grammarly. “What Is a Question Mark?.” Accessed January 14, 2021. https://www.grammarly.com/blog/question-mark/.

3 Jamieson, Phil. “Polite Requests.” ProofreadNOW. Accessed July 16, 2014. https://www.proofreadnow.com/blog/polite-requests/.