The Question Mark

Direct Questions

The question mark (also known as the "query" and the "interrogation point") is used after direct questions. A direct question is always marked by one or some combination of three signals: a rising intonation of the voice, an auxiliary verb inverted to a position before the subject, or an interrogative pronoun or adverb (who, what, why, when, how, and so on).

"Yes-no" questions (those answered by "yes," "no," or some variety of "maybe") are always signaled by a rising intonation, which may or may not be accompanied by the inversion of the auxiliary:

You're going downtown? Are you going downtown?

In speech the intonation alone (without the inverted verb) is often felt to be clear. In composition the auxiliary is generally inverted.

Informational questions (those requiring in answer a statement of fact, opinion, belief) do not have the rising intonation and may or may not have the inversion; but they contain, both in speech and in writing, an appropriate interrogative word:

Who is going downtown? When are you going downtown?

Indirect Questions

Indirect questions do not close with a question mark but with a period. Like direct questions they demand a response, but they are expressed as declarations without the formal characteristics of a question. That is, they have no inversion, no interrogative words, and no special intonation. We can imagine, for example, a situation in which one person asks another, "Are you going downtown?" (a direct question). The person addressed does not hear and a bystander says, "He asked if you were going downtown." That is an indirect question. It requires an answer, but it is expressed as a statement and so is closed by a period, not a query.

Rhetorical Questions

A rhetorical question is a variety of direct question and must be closed by a question mark, no matter whether the writer intends to answer to receive an not. (The notion that a rhetorical question does not require an answer is inaccurate. Rhetorical questions are often asked precisely so that the writer can compose the answer. And even when the writer does not state the answer, he or she expects the reader to supply it.)

Question Marks Within the Sentence

While question marks are primarily end stops, within the sentence they may signal doubt or uncertainty concerning a particular fact, idea, or feeling:

It was the Lord who knew of the impossibility every parent in that room faced: how to prepare the child for the day when the child would be despised and how to create in the child—by what stronger antidote to this poison than one had found for oneself. James Baldwin

Occasionally a question mark in parentheses appears within a sentence after a word to indicate that the writer is uncertain either of the spelling of the word or of the accuracy of the idea. One does this only when no reasonable way exists of checking the spelling or the information. It is abusing a privilege to write: "In 1492 (?) when Columbus discovered America " Anyone not sure of that date can fairly be expected to look it up.

There is, finally, a problem connected with where a query must be placed relative to a closing quotation mark. But since the problem affects all the other stops as well, we treat it when we discuss the quotation mark in the next chapter.

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