Grammar 7 min read

What Does a Question Mark Sign Mean?

Question marks express doubt or let you know that something needs an answer.

This brief grammar guide has everything you need use this curvy glyph correctly.

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Main Takeaways:

  • Question marks may be used to express uncertainty.
  • A question mark often indicates that a sentence is a direct question.
  • Indirect questions don’t always need a question mark.
  • Question marks live at the end of simple sentences.
  • The rules for punctuating sentences with quotation marks and parentheses are similar.
  • In informal writing styles combine question marks with other forms of punctuation to add meaning and clarity.

When you speak, your voice naturally rises in pitch at the end of a question. It signals to the person you’re talking with that an answer is required.

When it comes to the written word, punctuation helps accomplish the same thing. This is where the question mark comes in.

What is a Question Mark?

A question mark is one of 14 punctuation marks that bring clarity to written language. Its primary purpose is to indicate that a sentence is a direct question. It’s also known by its less familiar names such as question tag, question symbol, interrogation point, query, and eroteme.

What is a Question?

A question is a type of sentence that expresses doubt. When you need more information or something is unclear, questions help get the response you need. Basically, a question is a way to format a sentence so you can acquire information or elicit a response. Questions are designed to get answers. Questions can be direct or indirect.

Remember, interrogative clauses or phrases require the use of a question mark.
Remember, interrogative clauses or phrases require the use of a question mark.

Direct Questions

A direct question is the most basic form of inquiry. It generally begins with an interrogative such as who, what, where, when, why, or how.

Then, it ends with a question tag. The goal of this type of question is to get a direct response.

What is your favorite horror film?

Indirect Questions

An indirect question is a question that’s hidden inside a regular statement.

It may start with an indicator such as, “I was wondering…”

However, these can also hide inside a command or another question. Punctuation can vary depending on the type of sentence that contains the indirect question.

I’m asking whether he likes watching horror films.

This example shows an indirect question embedded in a statement.

Do you ever wonder if he likes watching horror films?

In this example, we show an indirect question embedded in another sentence.

Let me know if he likes watching horror films.

This example shows an indirect question embedded in a command.

Where do you put a Question Mark?

In the English language, if you ask a direct question, deciding where to put a question mark is simple. It goes at the end of the sentence, replacing the period or exclamation point as the terminal punctuation. However, in more complex sentences, such as those that incorporate additional punctuation, the query mark may be placed elsewhere. This is especially true for sentences that involve the use of quotation marks or parentheses when expressing the question. In these cases, special rules may apply.

Our voice rises in pitch at the end of a question, signaling that a response or answer is needed from the person we're talking with.
Our voice rises in pitch at the end of a question, signaling that a response or answer is needed from the person we’re talking with.
(Straightforward question) Do I really have to tell you not to eat ice cream before dinner?

1. Sentences that Include Quotation Marks

If your sentence includes quotation marks, follow these simple rules to determine if the question mark goes inside or outside the quotes.

If the question tag relates to the words or phrases inside the quotation marks, it belongs inside the quotation marks.

For the second time that week, she asked him, “Did you really eat three ice cream sundaes?”

It should be placed at the end if it relates to the entire sentence rather than what’s inside the quotes.

What did you mean when you said, “Don’t make a scene”?

If the question mark applies to the words in the quotes and the entire sentence, use it just once, inside your quotation marks.

Did anyone ever ask you, “Do you want to go to college?”

2. Sentences that include Parentheses

When punctuating sentences with parentheses, the rules for using question marks are almost identical to the rules for quotation marks.

If the query resides inside the parentheses, the question mark also belongs inside the parentheses.

Our voice rises in pitch at the end of a question, signaling that a response or answer is needed from the person we're talking with.
Our voice rises in pitch at the end of a question, signaling that a response or answer is needed from the person we’re talking with.
Jennifer bought ice cream (or was it sherbet?) at the grocery store yesterday.

If the question mark applies to the entire sentence rather than what’s inside the parentheses, then it should be placed at the end.

Will you buy us ice cream (or sherbet) tomorrow?

3. Combining a Question Mark with Other Forms of Punctuation

In formal written language, pairing a question mark with another type of punctuation is, well, questionable. In informal written language, however, this symbol is often combined with other forms of punctuation to provide additional meaning.

3. The Interrobang

The interrobang is an exclamation point superimposed on a question mark. It looks something like this:

Although it’s finding a place in informal written language, the interrobang is still considered a nonstandard form of punctuation.

It’s designed to indicate an exclamation that takes the form of a question.

It can also be expressed by using a combination of question marks and exclamation points such as:

  • !?
  • ?!
  • !?!
  • ?!?.
We combine question mark with other punctuations to add extra meaning to our statement.
We combine question mark with other punctuations to add extra meaning to our statement.
Are you seriously using nonstandard punctuation in formal writing?!?

Multiple Question Marks

You can express urgency in your question by using multiple question marks at the end of your statement. It can also indicate sarcasm or a special significance to the question. Many grammar purists find this usage to be nothing less than rude. So, unless it’s in casual correspondence, using multiple question marks may be asking for trouble.

Indirect Questions and Their Relationship to the Question Mark

When constructing sentences around indirect questions, should this sentence have a question mark?

The answer depends on the type of sentence you’re using.

1. When to Use a Period

You use a period instead of a question mark for statements that contain indirect questions.

I was wondering if you think eating ice cream before dinner is out of the question.
Tell me if you think eating ice cream before dinner is a good idea.

The only time you use a question mark for an indirect question is when it lives inside another query.

Do you know if any of the kids were eating ice cream before dinner?

In this example, “Do you know?” is the direct question. The indirect question is whether any of the kids were eating ice cream before dinner.

2. How to Express Doubt

The question symbol is also useful when expressing uncertainty or in labeling potentially inaccurate information, especially in nonfiction or mathematics.

The party begins at 3:00 (?) next Sunday. I’ll double-check the time.

In this example, 3:00 is the information in question, as indicated by a question mark set alone inside parentheses.

Riddle Me This: The Question Mark in Popular Culture

Probably the most famous example of the question mark in popular culture is Batman’s nemesis, The Riddler. Or, the villainous alter ego of Edward Nygma.

The Riddler is renowned for his keen intellect and believes life is full of questions (otherwise known as riddles). He’s easily identified by his green question mark suit and question mark-shaped cane.

Batman's nemesis, the Riddler, dons a green costume covered in question marks.
Pop Culture: Batman’s nemesis, The Riddler, dons a green costume covered in question mark. | Art and Roam / Shutterstock.com

From its pop culture appearance to its part in creating new forms of punctuation, the question mark is an instantly recognizable symbol.

It can let a reader know they’re being asked a question, and it can be used to label uncertain information. It can also provide clarity or emphasis in informal communication modes such as social media or email.

Nobody will question the questions in your content if you understand the main principles of this curvy punctuation symbol. Now, do you have any questions before you go?

Read More: Apostrophe

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