Are you using question marks correctly?

Posted on 17 December 2015 by Emily Stella

Question marks are simple, aren’t they? They go at the end of questions. For example, ‘Do you think I can make CEO next year?’ or ‘What’s the likelihood of our company merging?’

But there is a grey area with requests and statements where a question is implied. These don’t need a question mark, but it can be more polite to use one over a full stop.

Requests

When you make a request of someone, you’re telling them what to do. It’s not a question, but without a question mark you can sound terse.

Consider the following:

‘Please could you sign this document and return it to me by tomorrow.’

‘Can everyone please be seated.’

Versus:

‘Could I please ask you to book the flights?’

‘May I take your number so I can call you later?’

Statements

People often use question marks at the end of statements when a question is implied. These aren’t direct questions so a question mark isn’t strictly correct. Does this look familiar to you?

‘We’re more than happy to do this if it’s something you’d like?’

‘This seems easy but I’ve run out of ideas?’

‘Perhaps we can schedule a call in the new year?’

Question marks after a request or statement are a common feature in informal writing, for example in emails, blogs and articles because they lighten the tone. That’s OK, but it’s best to avoid them in formal writing.

Other types of questions

Rhetorical questions

A rhetorical question is a question you ask without expecting an answer – usually because the answer is obvious. For example, ‘Why are you so good at your job?’ You can use a question mark or an exclamation mark after a rhetorical question.

Tag questions

I used a tag question at the beginning of this blog, ‘Question marks are simple, aren’t they?’ In tag questions, if the statement is positive the tag is negative and vice versa. For example, ‘He would, wouldn’t he?’ or ‘You don’t have a meeting today, do you?’ They tend to be used in spoken language when we want to check something is true or invite people to agree with us.

Again, these types of questions are fine in informal writing but leave them out of your formal documents.

The key features of a question mark

1. Question marks are used to indicate a direct question, eg ‘Do you want feedback on this document?’

2. Question marks can be used in statements and requests so that they sound more polite. You see this in informal writing only.

3. A question mark replaces a full stop; you don’t need both.

4. You should capitalise the first letter after a question if it’s a sentence, eg ‘When do you think you’ll have this finished? It really needs to be done by the end of the day’. If you have a flurry of short questions, it’s OK not to capitalise the first letter, eg ‘Maybe you’re hungry? or thirsty? or both?’

5. Question marks can be used in brackets immediately before or after a word to express doubt, eg ‘Tomatoes are a fruit(?)’.