The Question Mark

A question mark (?) is placed at the end of a sentence which is a direct question. Here are some examples:

What is the capital of Wales?
Does anyone have a pen I can borrow?
Who told you that?
In which country did coffee originate?

If the question is a direct quotation, repeating the speaker's exact words, a question mark is still used:

"Have you a pen I can borrow?" she asked.
"How many of you have pets at home?" inquired the teacher.

But a question mark is not used in an indirect question, in which the speaker's exact words are not repeated:

She asked if I had a pen she could borrow.
The teacher asked how many of us had pets at home.

Here only a full stop is used, since the whole sentence is now a statement.

The question mark also has one minor use: it may be inserted into the middle of something, inside parentheses, to show that something is uncertain. Here are two examples:

The famous allegorical poem Piers Plowman is attributed to William Langland (?1332­?1400).
The Lerga inscription fascinatingly contains the personal name Vmme Sahar (?), which looks like perfect Basque.

The question marks on the poet's birth and death dates indicate that those dates are not certain, and the one in the second example indicates that the reading of the name is possibly doubtful.

Summary of Question Marks:

  • Use a question mark at the end of a direct question.
  • Do not use a question mark at the end of an indirect question.
  • Use an internal question mark to show that something is uncertain.

Copyright © Larry Trask, 1997

Maintained by the Department of Informatics, University of Sussex