Question Marks

Introduction

You probably think you already know how to use a question mark, don’t you?

But did you know that the previous sentence ended with a “question tag,” a way to turn a statement into a question?

In other words, while question marks are fairly straight forward, there are still a few subtle points to take note of.

Asking Questions

Obviously, a question mark goes at the end of a question:

Would you visit the Karni Mata Temple, which is dedicated to the worship of rats?

However, no question mark is necessary if the question is part of a regular declarative sentence:

She asked if I would visit the Karni Mata Temple during my trip to India.

In this example, the question is implied, rather than stated directly. The sentence is merely declaring or describing that “she asked a question.” It is not actually asking the question.

This type of sentence is often called an indirect question (also called an embedded question), by which we mean that the question is part of a statement.  Here are some more examples:

My prof wanted to know if my dog also ate computers.

The dentist asked Penelope when her last checkup was.

Sometimes these statements (in which the question is embedded) can themselves become questions:

Did the dentist ask Penelope when her last checkup was?

When this happens we in fact have two questions (Did the dentist ask that? When was her last checkup?), but there is only one question mark. In other words, the second question still remains an indirect question.

These double questions can be tricky for those new to the English language.

Note for ESL Students

ESL instructors often use the term “indirect question” to describe yet another way of asking questions.

Within an ESL context, an “indirect question” is often considered a more formal and less direct way of asking a question.  It’s a way of adding words to a question to make it part of a longer sentence:

Direct question: Where is the post-office?

Indirect question: Do you know where the post-office is?

This distinction is important for ESL users because in the indirect question the word order has changed. However, the question mark still remains.

Questions in a Series

If you’re asking a number of questions in a row, each one gets its own question mark:

Mr. President, I have a few simple questions: Why did you resign? Where is the money now? What did your wife have to say?

You actually don’t even need to capitalize the follow-up questions, especially if they are short and follow a similar syntax as the original one:

Do you celebrate Women’s Day? or Peanut Butter Cookie Day? or how about Butterfly Kisses Day?

Notice too that with successive questions you can use sentence fragments for the later questions. These questions rely on the grammar of the initial sentence. However, in academic writing you may want to be more formal.

With other Punctuation

How do question marks interact with other forms of punctuation? The basic rule is that a question mark should not be combined with commas, periods, or exclamation points.

Compare the following examples, where the usual commas are dropped:

“Would you like a cup of coffee?” she said.

I asked, “Have oil prices hit rock bottom yet?” but she wouldn’t speculate.

The exception is with abbreviations, where the period remains necessary:

How long did you stay in Washington, D.C.?

In general, though, avoid piling up punctuation marks. After all, you don’t want to sound like you’re shouting at people, do you?!

Polite Requests

According to some style guides, a polite request does not need a question mark:

Could everyone please line up neatly for the bus, so that the little kids don’t get bowled over.

Will you all join me in a round of applause.

Since these requests blend into a command (they demand an action rather than a reply), a period is appropriate.

Introducing the Question

If you look through the examples above, many questions are introduced by a colon or stand by themselves as a sentence.

However, we sometimes run into awkward constructions such as the following:

The real question remains, did the Zika virus cause an increase in microcephaly cases?

His last objection was, could the defendant have finished the Rubik’s cube that quickly?

The comma here feels like hitting a bump in the road and swerving into oncoming traffic. Yet we can’t use a colon because the opening clause isn’t complete. (If you must know, remains is a transitive verb which takes an object, and that object is the question; similarly, was is a linking verb that connects the subject with the predicate nominative, i.e., the question that follows.) That’s why the comma is correct, even though it looks a bit strange.

In fact, you are even allowed to capitalize the question or invert the sentence and place the question mark in the middle:

The real question remains, Did the Zika virus cause an increase in microcephaly cases?

Could the defendant have finished the Rubik’s cube that quickly? was his last objection.

If you feel that these sentences look a bit inelegant, you can always rephrase:

He raised one last objection: could the defendant have finished the Rubik’s cube that quickly?

An important question remains: did the Zika virus cause an increase in microcephaly cases?

Why are we allowed to use a colon here? Because this time the introductory words are an independent clause. (And if you look closely, this time the verb remains is intransitive, which means that it doesn’t need a direct object.)

And that’s about it for question marks. Let’s hope you don’t have any questions.

Exercises




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