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The question mark is the easiest punctuation mark to use

The question mark is the easiest of punctuation marks to use as apposed to the apostrophe which, as we have seen, can be the cause of confusion.

There are a few exceptions where the question mark can cause problems. In English a question mark (?) is placed at the end of a sentence to indicate a direct question. These simple sentences provide no difficulties: Will it rain this afternoon? How old are you?

The question mark also has a specialised use in areas such as computing or medicine, but this doesn’t concern us here.

Direct questions and the question mark

In direct questions, in which the speaker’s exact words are indicated by means of quotation marks, the question mark is used in the normal way although now you have to be a bit more careful.

Look at these simple sentences and you will see that the speaker’s exact words appear within speech or quotation marks, as you would no doubt expect. And because these sentences are framed as direct questions the question mark, being part of the inquiry, is placed within these quotation marks – never outside them.

“May I borrow your pen?” he asked.
“What is your name?” the teacher inquired.

Indirect questions and the question mark

So far so good. But where do you put the question mark in indirect speech? Sorry! This is a trick question. The answer is you never use questions marks in indirect questions because the speaker’s exact words are not repeated. By way of explanation here are a few examples:

• Direct question: “May I borrow your pen?” he asked.
• Indirect question: He asked if he could borrow my pen.
• Direct question: “What is your name?” the teacher inquired.
• Indirect question: The teacher asked him what his name is.
• Direct question: “When will I see you again?” she asked.
• Indirect question (incorrect): She asked “when I would see her again.”
• Indirect question (incorrect): She asked when I would see her again?

Indirect questions are not really questions; they are statements. Therefore we don’t use question marks, and the sentences end with full stops. In my experience this is where many people make mistakes (see the two incorrect answers above).

Internal question marks

The question mark has other limited uses, albeit fairly minor. When inserted inside parentheses it indicates that something is unknown or uncertain. Here is an example:

Harold II (?1022 – 14 October 1066) was the last Anglo-Saxon King of England.
This indicates that the date of King Harold’s birth is uncertain. Note that the question mark is placed in front of the date.

In cases where writing is illegible or doubtful, or a word or name is uncertain, a question mark within parentheses may be used. Look at the sentence below:

I met an interesting man who introduced himself as Featherstonhaugh (?).
This indicates that I didn’t catch his name or I don’t know how to spell it.

In informal writing bracketed question marks can also be used for rhetorical questions – Oh, is that so (?) – but this is not recommended. And remember you should avoid using a question mark in combination with other punctuation marks unless it is in very informal writing e.g. You did what!?

Although the question mark typically occurs at the end of a sentence, it may also occur within a larger sentence where it replaces a comma. See the example below of a direct question, followed by a question mark, in the middle of another sentence:

When will they arrive? she wondered.

Personally I don’t like this construction but, as in every aspect of English, exceptions to rules abound and we can get horribly bogged down if we delve too deeply into the complexities of punctuation.

So let’s keep your use of the question mark simple.

John DorringtonJohn Dorrington (27)

John is a freelance copy-writer, editor and proof-reader, and has written four books. He has edited several novels and factual books, although much of his work involves editing students’ academic dissertations, including several Master’s and Doctoral theses. He is a graduate of the University of Cape Town where he studied English and History

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