4 Punctuation

4.8 Question mark

4.8.1 Typical uses

Question marks are used to indicate a direct question. Do not use a question mark when a question is implied by indirect speech:

  • He wants to know whether you are coming

  • She asked why the coffee hadn’t materialized

Requests framed as questions out of idiom or politeness do not normally take question marks:

  • May I take this opportunity to wish you all a safe journey

  • Will everyone please stand to toast the bride and groom

although a question mark can seem more polite than a full point:
  • Would you kindly let us know whether to expect you?

  • I wonder if I might ask you to open the window?

Matter following a question mark begins with a capital letter:

  • You will be back before lunch, right? About noon? Good.

although short questions that are embedded in another sentence are not followed by a capital:
  • Where now? they wonder

Embedded questions that are not in quotation marks are often not capitalized. The question mark follows the question at whatever point it falls in a sentence:

  • The question is, what are the benefits for this country? What about the energy?

When the question is presented as direct speech (whether voiced or formulated in someone’s mind), it should be capitalized and set in quotation marks:

  • ‘Why not?’ she wondered

  • She wondered, ‘Why not?’

Note that a question mark at the end of a sentence functions like a full point, and that double punctuation should not be used. For a full account of the use of punctuation with quotation marks see 9.2.3.

4.8.2 Use to express uncertainty

Use a question mark immediately before or after a word, phrase, or figure to express doubt, placing it in parentheses where it would otherwise appear to punctuate or interrupt a sentence. Strictly, a parenthetical question mark should be set closed up to a single word to which it refers, but with a normal interword space separating the doubtful element from the opening parenthesis if more of the sentence is contentious:

  • The White Horse of Uffington (? sixth century bc) was carved …

  • Homer was born on Chios(?)

However, this distinction is probably too subtle for all but specialized contexts, and explicit rewording may well be preferable. The device does not always make clear what aspect of the text referred to is contentious: in the latter example it is Homer’s birthplace that is in question, but a reader might mistakenly think it is the English spelling (Chios) of what is Khios in Greek.

A question mark is sometimes used to indicate that a date is uncertain; in this context it may precede or follow the date. It is important to ensure that the questionable element is clearly identified, and this may necessitate the use of more than one question mark. In some styles the exact spacing of the question mark is supposed to clarify its meaning, but the significance of the space may well be lost on the reader, who will not grasp the difference between the following forms:

? 1275–1333



1275–1333 ?


It would be clearer to present the first form with two question marks and the second with one only; and in general the question mark is better placed in the after position:



Similarly, care must be taken not to elide numbers qualified by a question mark if the elision may introduce a false implication: in a context where number ranges are elided, 1883–1888? makes clear that the first date is certain but the second in question; 1883–8? suggests that the entire range is questionable.

More refined use of the question mark, with days and months as well as years, is possible but tricky. While 10? January 1731 quite clearly throws only the day into question, 10 January? 1731 could, in theory, mean that the day and year are known but the month is only probable. In such circumstances it is almost always preferable to replace or supplement the form with some explanation:

  • He made his will in 1731 on the 10th of the month, probably January (the record is unclear)

  • He made his will on 10 January? 1731 (the document is damaged and the month cannot be clearly read)

A distinction is usually understood between the use of a question mark and c. (circa) with dates: the former means that the date so qualified is probable, the latter that the event referred to happened at an unknown time, before, on, or after the date so qualified. (Note that the period implied by c. is not standard: c.1650 probably implies a broader range of possible dates than does c.1653.)

A question mark in parentheses is sometimes used to underline sarcasm or for other humorous effect:

  • With friends (?) like that, you don’t need enemies

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