Although the question mark is one of the easiest punctuation symbols to use in writing, it’s easy to misuse it. In part, this may be due to to trying to make it work harder when it doesn’t need to be used, or it just might be because it’s not well understood that not all question type statements need a question mark. After reading this article though, you’ll be much the wiser on knowing how to use a question mark correctly. But you knew that, didn’t you?

Note the point of using a question mark. The primary purpose of a question mark is to indicate that the sentence is a question. It’s also useful for demonstrating surprise, skepticism, uncertainty, and the unknown. Note-the-point-of-using-a-question-mark
Use the question mark as an indicator of interrogation. At its most basic, if you’re asking a direct question awaiting an answer, you need a question mark:

  • How is your sore throat?
  • Are the roses wilting?
  • When will you be home?
  • What is the name of the company you work for?
  • Where were you on the night of February 14, 2007?
  • Who were you with?
  • What were you doing?
  • How are question marks supposed to be used?
  • Why do people think that rhetorical questions don’t end with a question mark?
  • Use the question mark for incomplete questions too, such as: “Huh? Really? No joke?”
Use question marks for rhetorical questions. Although it is sometimes assumed that rhetorical questions don’t require a question mark, they do. In the sentence, “Isn’t that ironic?, for example, an exclamation mark could be used instead, to emphasize the speaker’s surprise. Here are some examples of rhetorical questions requiring the interrogation point:

  • Are you kidding me?
  • How should I know?
  • What’s the use?
  • Who cares?
Know how to insert question marks into a sentence. The question mark can be used within a sentence (not just at the end of it) if wished, although you might prefer to use commas and leave the question mark for the end of the sentence – it’s your choice, as both ways are correct. For example, take the situation of someone leaving their house in a hurry before a disaster and wondering what they might have time to take with them. The sentence could be written both of the following ways, noting that the second way provides a lot more emphasis:

  • Would I have time to take my car, my horse, my photo album, my laptop, my favorite clothes and jewelry?
  • Would I have time to take my car? my horse? my photo album? my laptop? my favorite clothes and jewelry? Note that you do not need capital letters as it remains one sentence. In this sentence, the question marks are known as “interrupters” and either emphasize each of the separate question fragments, or show the close-linked nature of them.
Use a question mark to show doubt or uncertainty. If there is something stated in a sentence that is unknown, it is appropriate to highlight this fact using a question mark. This is useful for writing up meeting notes, birth and death dates where they are unknown or unverifiable, making editor’s notes, etc. Use parentheses, use sparingly, and only use in the right context, such as about a point of fact. Here are some examples:

  • Fred was a feisty sailor (? – 1686). Note that this type of question mark is not an end point, hence the need for a period if you say: Fred was born in 1625 (?).
  • His ancestor (Fred Barnstar?) was a feisty sailor who died in 1686.
  • Mr Barnstar said he’d pay the council (?) dollars to remove the offending graffiti from his garage door, even though he thought it was already covered by his taxes.
  • Editor’s note: “The cat was able to regurgitate a (?) onto the floor.”
Use question marks in titles where the phrase is only completed by the question mark. For example: “How to Watch Do You Want to Be a Millionaire?
Introduce a question into a longer sentence. Sometimes it’s appropriate to introduce a question within a long sentence. Simply use a comma and start the question fragment with a capital letter:

  • The question was, What was I to do with a rotten apple?
  • I asked, “What am I supposed to do with a rotten apple?” This is the best construction for the introduction of a quote.
  • Where the introduction is a complete sentence, it’s better to use a colon instead – The question I asked my teacher was this: How should I use a rotten apple?
Avoid misuse of question marks. There are occasions where the use of the question mark might seem appropriate but isn’t correct. A question mark is not used when asking someone to do something, or to make requests. In the book “Punctuation Pointers”, Maxwell Nurnberg states: “We do not use the question mark when we are merely making a request or when we expect no answer.” Here are some examples where it’s essential to avoid misusing a question mark:

  • Where the question asked is indirect, namely it implies a question instead of expressing it, or describes a question without actually asking it directly, there is no need for a question mark. For example:
    • We may expect word from you shortly.
    • He asked me why I was no longer skydiving.
    • She asked if she could leave her gift at the door.
  • Where it is a courtesy question, general practice tends to drop the question mark. Note, however, that these kinds of sentences (namely, requests in the form of a question) occur much more frequently in speechthan in writing. Question marks, of course, don’t apply to speech, except when it’s transcribed. For example:
    • Would you please send us a duplicate copy of that invoice.
    • Will you please read the transcript back to me.
    • May we have the pleasure of hearing from you soon.
    • Can I please look at that book.
  • Avoid using more than one question mark unless you’re texting or actively seeking to drive your reader up the proverbial wall. While writing “Don’t you like popular people?????” seems emphatic, it’s incorrect for all but the most informal of writing.



  • Note: As with all English grammar, there are regional, country, and even style guide variations that may offer a slightly different view of grammar usage. Being a wiki, this article is always open to additional, complementary explanations.
  • Language changes with time and actual usage. The above is clearly written from a prescriptive point of view, where the author explains rules we’re expected to follow. Depending on your audience, it may in fact be considered more correct to use a question mark wherever there’s a question, in the situation where it would otherwise look ungrammatical even to college-educated readers younger than 40.
  • Question marks coupled with exclamation points are grammatically incorrect. Of course, there are exceptions. Rhetorical questions, and informal writing often allow for this occasional exception because it is expressive and helps the reader to grasp the meaning more clearly.
  • Other names for a question mark include interrogation point, interrogation mark, question point, query, or eroteme.
  • A question mark can be used to call into question something that borders on trying to be sarcastic but this is considered to be poor grammar and poor taste and is best not used. Note the author’s sarcasm in the following sentence, denoted by the placement of the question mark: “His eloquence (?) is barbaric.” Good writing will convey the humorous or sarcastic intent without insertion of a question mark in this fashion; if you need to insert a question mark for this purpose, it’s a sign to revisit the writing of the entire sentence.
  • It should be noted that when describing a character in a novel, the question mark may be used to describe intonation of a sentence for the character’s development.

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