Definition: a punctuation mark (?) indicating a question.
Note: Do not rely on grammar or spelling checkers to identify missing or misused punctuation. Although a checker may flag possibly missing or incorrect marks, it cannot do much else. While I still recommend using these AI checkers while you’re writing, I insist that you also trust a qualified human being to copyedit any work that you are working toward publishing.
Sometimes it’s easy to figure out when to use a question mark, and other times it’s more nuanced than that. The question mark, also called an interrogation point, is always used for direct questions, and sometimes use to convert simple or declarative statements into questions.
After a Direct Question:
Use a question mark after a direct question.
- e.g. Where are you going?
- e.g. How will you get there?
Do not use a question mark after an indirect question.
- e.g. Matthew asked Gale who he was taking to the dance.
- e.g. He wondered when the fireworks would start.
Use a question mark after a direct question contained within a declarative statement.
- e.g. “What is your name?” she asked.
- e.g. She asked, “What is your name?”
- e.g. Then he wondered, What do I do?
- e.g. What do I do? he wondered.
Use a question mark to convert a simple statement. This is most often used in dialogue to indicate a character making a request of another person rather than a demand.
- e.g. Stay with me?
To Indicate Doubt:
Use a question mark within parentheses to indicate uncertainty about a fact.
- e.g. William Shakespeare was born on April 23 (?), 1564.
Use a question mark directly after a year within a range to indicate a guess.
- e.g. David McClelland (1917?–1998) is the most famous person born in an Unknown Year.
With Other Punctuation:
Put a question mark inside of quotation marks, parentheses, or brackets if it is part of the enclosed material.
- e.g. “Can I borrow your car?” Anthony asked.
- e.g. At the club (you are going, aren’t you?), we’ll have so much fun.
Put a question mark outside of quotation marks, parentheses, or brackets if it is not part of the enclosed material.
- e.g. Can you begin by reading Dante’s “Inferno”?
- e.g. Can I come over later (to return your umbrella)?
Do not use a period, comma, colon, or semicolon immediately after a question mark.
- e.g. Dick, Philip K. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Gateway, 2010.
You may use a question mark after an ellipsis if the question trails off. Most often used in dialogue.
- e.g. “And this is…?”
Using an exclamation point together with a question mark is called an interrobang. It indicates a question spoken with added intensity or emotion. Often, rules state that a question mark overrules an exclamation mark. Personally, I refrain from using interrobangs.
- e.g. “Where do you think you’re going?!” he demanded.
- e.g. “Where do you think you’re going?” he demanded.
For further information, see my other Punctuation articles:
Aaron, J.E. & Morrison, A. The Little, Brown Compact Handbook, 5th Canadian ed. Pearson, 2013, chap 5
Judd, K. Copyediting, A Practical Guide, 3rd ed. California, CA: Crisp Learning, 2001, chap 4