Quizzical About Question Marks?

Icarus

Ah, the question mark. A staple of English punctuation, wouldn’t you say?

As far as punctuation goes, question marks are pretty straightforward. However, as with most things related to our lovely language, there are a few rules regarding their usage. So let’s get started.

A question mark, you may be shocked to discover, is used to indicate a question.

  • How did Icarus burn his wings?

It can also be used to express something called editorial doubt, which does not refer to an editor’s existential crisis (at least not usually). Editorial doubt refers to uncertainty about a fact, typically an unknown date, but any unknown fact can be flagged in this manner. Check it out:

  • Achilles’ lesser-known sibling was said to have had an (Achilles?) thumb. (Unfortunately, he decided to become a carpenter.)

Finally, question marks can also be used in declarative or imperative sentences to indicate disbelief, surprise or uncertainty.

  • Oedipus, she isn’t really your wife?

Now, here are some rules about when and how to use question marks.

If the question is contained within the sentence, you can use a question mark at that point and the following word does not need to be capitalized. For example:

  • Is Zeus really my father? she wondered.

If the question is indirect, it does not take a question mark. Compare the following examples:

  • Prometheus wondered whether the eagle would return again tomorrow.
  • Do I really want to eat liver again? the eagle wondered the following day.

And if the question is within a sentence, but is only one word (who, how, why, etc.), it doesn’t require a question mark, though it can be italicized to clarify meaning for the reader.

  • The question was no longer if but when Medusa would turn him to stone.

Similarly, if a request is presented in question form, it does not require a question mark.

  • Would you kindly ask your centaurs to stop eating my lawn.

Finally, when it comes to using a question mark along with other punctuation, such as parentheses or quotation marks, the question mark should go inside if it applies to the quoted/parenthetical material — but it should go outside if it does not. Compare the following examples:

  • “Who’s a good boy?” Hades asked, patting Cerberus on the head.
  • Hades, are you going to pick up after your hellhound (who’s left behind a smell worse than the Underworld)?

And that, dear readers, should answer all your unanswered questions about question marks!

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Image credit: Freddy / Photoxpress.com

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10 thoughts on “Quizzical About Question Marks?

  1. This made me laugh… not at the excellent information, but at the way you presented it in myth form. Would you kindly ask your centaurs to stop eating my lawn. So funny. I love the way your turn a lesson into an entertainment.

  2. Actually, I have a question about question marks. Is one required when the question is folded into a statement? For example, “The real question is why are the centaurs in town and not in the forest.” Thanks!

    1. Hi Marianne — thanks for stopping by! Great question! And nope, no need for a question mark in that case. It’s similar to the indirect question. That said, if you added a colon after “is” then the rest of the sentence would become a direct question (“The real question is: Why are the centaurs in town and not in the forest?”).

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