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A question mark (?) is a form of punctuation placed at the end of a sentence. Its main purpose is to specify a query or question. In this lesson, we will take a look at when you should and should not use a question mark in your writing.


(Video available on March 2016)

Lesson Transcript

Definition

Who is the faster runner?

Did Mary finish her dinner?

Are we there yet?

So many questions, so little time. The question mark, also known as an interrogation point, essentially lets the reader know that the sentence you are writing is a question. It can be used to express uncertainty or doubt or any other unknown.

When to Use a Question Mark

There are many different instances when you will need to add a question mark to your sentence. Let’s take a look at a few of the most common uses:

A direct question that needs an answer, like:

  • What time do you leave for work in the morning?
  • Are the flowers for me?
  • What’s your favorite television program?

A rhetorical question, which is a question asked for effect that does not need an answer. This use is a little tricky because some people do not realize that when asking a rhetorical question, it is always necessary to use a question mark. Here are some examples:

  • Who do you think you are?
  • Are you kidding me right now?
  • How dare you?

Another common use of question marks is for informally turning a statement into a question. In personal, informal writings you can include a question mark at the end of a statement in order to turn that statement into a question. This can include anything from a text message to an e-mail or letter. For example:

  • Sammy will be there by noon?
  • You will wear a suit to dinner?
  • You promise to call me when you get there?

You can also use a question mark for expressing uncertainty when writing a sentence. This is especially useful for information that cannot be proven without a doubt. Please note that the question mark is in parenthesis because it does not end the sentence; that job is done by the period:

  • Armenis Cunningham was born on 1325 (?).
  • Eduardo Nunez died of arsenic poisoning (?) in the late 1400s.

When Not to Use a Question Mark

Even though the question mark is one of the most commonly used forms of punctuation, it is also often times misused. Not all statements that look like questions need a question mark. For example, typically you wouldn’t use a question mark when your question turns into a request:

  • Would anyone who is left-handed please see your teacher for special instructions.

You also would not use a question mark when writing an indirect question. Indirect questions, unlike rhetorical questions, still seek an answer but are worded like statements:

  • I wonder how long the wedding ceremony is going to take.

Sometimes It’s Up to You

There are certain instances when it’s neither grammatically correct nor incorrect to use a question mark. Sometimes, we can even use a question mark within a sentence and not just at the end. Let’s take a look at two different ways to write the same sentence that are both perfectly correct. The only difference is that when we use question marks inside of a sentence, it provides more emphasis on the uncertainty. Note how the first sentence uses question marks for maximum effect:

  • After I graduate from college should I be a lawyer? an accountant? a writer? a teacher? or perhaps even a rock star?
  • After I graduate from college should I be a lawyer, an accountant, a writer, a teacher, or perhaps even a rock star?

Please note that capital letters weren’t needed after each question mark in the first sentence; that’s because these question marks are not meant to end the sentence. Instead, these question marks are calledinterrupters. They are meant to emphasize. In this example, they stress the writer’s intense uncertainty about what they are going to do for a living after they graduate from college.

Lesson Summary

Question marks are one of the most commonly used forms of punctuation; however, they are often grammatically misused. Be sure to use a question mark when asking a direct question, in a rhetorical question, when you want to turn a statement into a question, or when you’re unsure of a piece of information that can’t be verified. You should avoid using a question mark at times when you’re making a request or in an indirect question. Finally, there are times when it’s totally up to the writer depending on what kind of effect you’re aiming for in your sentence.

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