Do you know how to punctuate every kind of question? Even rhetorical questions?
Today's topic is how to format questions. You think you already know this, don't you? I wonder if you're right.
Almost everybody knows how to write a plain vanilla question like “What's new?” They're called direct questions, but there are trickier scenarios. What happens when a sentence seems to be half statement, half question? What if you're asking an indirect question, or asking a question that also seems to need an exclamation point, or dealing with a quotation that contains a question, and so on? I'll answer all these questions.
Questions Masquerading as Statements
Sometimes even direct questions can be tricky because they can look like statements, and the only way to tell your reader otherwise is to add a question mark (1). There's a big difference in meaning between “He went to the store.” and “He went to the store?” Yet the only difference between the two sentences is that one ends with a period and one ends with a question mark. The question mark makes it a direct question that shows surprise. What the heck was he doing at the store?
The Chicago Manual of Style also says you can use an exclamation point instead of a question mark in such instances of surprise. (2)
A Question Flurry
What if you have a bunch of questions and you want to string them all together?
I once saw a funny scene in a movie (I think it was “Cats & Dogs”) where a dog realizes he can talk, and it goes something like this: “You can hear me? Can I have a cookie? Two cookies? Four cookies? Twenty cookies?”
Those add-on questions at the end aren't complete sentences, but they each get a question mark anyway. It reads “Can I have a cookie? Two cookies? Four cookies?” and so on.
They aren't complete sentences, and the rules about capitalization are vague. The AP Stylebook says to capitalize the first letter of each add-on question, (3) but some books say to capitalize the first letter if the questions are “nearly a sentence” (4) or have “sentence-like status,” (5) so you have to use your own judgment. I would capitalize them.
Statements with Tag Questions
Now, what about those little questions that come at the end of a statement? You didn't forget my birthday, did you? It's fun to play maracas, isn't it?
Bits like “did you” and “isn't it” are called tag questions, and they turn the whole sentence into a question, so use a question mark at the end. (6, 7)
Do you have a curious nature? Do you wonder about things? When you wonder, your statements might sound like questions, but they're not direct questions, they're indirect questions, and they don't take a question mark. For example, “I wonder why he went to the store.” It's an indirect question—essentially a statement that you are wondering—so there's no question mark. “I wonder if Squiggly would lend me his maracas.” Again, it's not a question, so you don’t use a question mark.
Questions in Quotation Marks
Next, where do you put the question mark when you're using quotation marks? It depends on the sentence—is the whole thing a big question, or is only the part in quotation marks a question?
If the whole sentence is a question, then you put the question mark outside the quotation mark. (8, 9) Here's an example:
What do you think Squiggly meant when he said, “The fish swam darkly up the river”?
The whole sentence is a question, so the question mark goes at the very end (outside the quotation mark).
On the other hand, if only the quotation is a question, then the question mark goes inside the quotation mark. (8, 9) Here's an example:
Squiggly ran up to Aardvark and asked, "Where is the chocolate?"
The question mark goes inside the quotation mark because the only part of the sentence that is a question is “Where is the chocolate?”
It helps to remember that the question mark stays attached to the question whether it is the whole sentence or just the quotation.
Questions with Parentheses
Similar questions come up about question marks and parentheses. If the part inside the parentheses is a question, put the question mark inside, but if the parentheses just come at the end of a longer question, put the question mark outside.
For example, if you write:
We’re going to Laurie’s beach house (where is the beach house again?).
So you’ve put the question “Where is the beach house again?” inside parentheses as part of one long sentence, so you put the question mark inside the closing parenthesis.
But if you write:
When are we going to Laurie’s beach house (the one in Maine)?
Then the whole sentence is a question and the part in parentheses, “the one in Maine” is just an addition at the end, so the question mark goes at the very end of the sentence. (9, 10)
Indirect Questions Mixed with Direct Questions
It gets really wild when you start mixing direct and indirect questions together. There are multiple ways to write something like “The question is, who threw the confetti?” The simplest way to write that is to put a comma after the indirect question and a question mark after the direct question (6): The question is, who threw the confetti?
Believe it or not though, some style guides recommend that you capitalize the first word in a direct question, even though it comes in the middle of a sentence: “The question is, Who threw the confetti?” (11, 12) Supposedly, capitalizing the first word in the question places more emphasis on the question, but I think it makes the sentence look disjointed.
And if you think that looks weird, it gets even worse. If you flip the two parts around, you can put a question mark in the middle of your sentence (5, 12): “Who threw the confetti? was the question.”
It's good to know the rules, but these sentences seem so contorted that I think it is better to rewrite them. I could easily convert the sentence to an indirect question: “Everyone wondered who threw the confetti.” Or I could use a colon to make the punctuation less odd: “One question remained: Who threw the confetti?”
Here's another strange rule: Some style guides say that polite requests phrased as questions get a period instead of a question mark. (5, 6, 8) For instance, they recommend putting a period at the end of a sentence such as “Would you bring me the maracas.” I have always found this odd, since it is clearly a question, but the rationale is that it is really more of a demand masquerading as a question. You don’t expect the person to say no.
Rhetorical questions are similar. When you don’t expect an answer or you’re expressing surprise with statements that sound like questions, you can use a period or an exclamation point. “How great is that!” and “Who knows what they were thinking.” are examples of the kind of questions that don’t need a question mark if you aren’t really asking something. (7)
Finally, when you're asking a question in surprise such as “What?!” the Chicago Manual of Style says you may use both a question mark and an exclamation point, (7) but that it often isn't appropriate in formal writing. (6) Instead, pick the terminal punctuation mark that is most appropriate and use just one. Ask yourself whether your statement is more of a question or more of an outburst.
I've always found that solution unsatisfactory, which is why I’m happy to see they allow the dual punctuation marks if you really need them. (I believe this is new in recent editions.) And I also love an obscure punctuation mark that was designed exclusively for asking questions in a surprised manner. It's called an interrobang, and it looks like an exclamation point superimposed on a question mark.
Sadly, you also shouldn't use the interrobang in formal writing, but I love it when I see people use it in email or on social media, and most word processing programs let you insert it as a special character.
Punctuating Questions: Lesson Ideas
These assignments are appropriate for students in middle school and beyond.
Although some punctuation is straightforward, questions can require particularly tricky punctuation. Have students read the article on this page or listen to the audio from the Grammar Girl podcast (episode 822, May 5, 2021), available on this site and through Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Stitcher.
Assignment #1 (Intermediate)
Have students construct their own example questions for each section of the piece:
- Questions masquerading as statements
- A question flurry
- Statements with tag questions
- Questions in quotation marks (both kinds of sentences)
- Questions with parentheses (both kinds of sentences)
- Indirect questions mixed with direct questions
- Polite requests
- Rhetorical questions
- Surprising questions
Assignment #2 (Advanced)
As a class or in a reflection piece, have students discuss how they feel about the more esoteric suggestions that are not so much rules as styles and how they came to their conclusions about their preferred usage. Possible topics include:
1) Do they find the capital letter or question mark in the middle of a sentence distracting when combining indirect questions or statements with direct questions? Would they use this formatting in their own writing, or would they rewrite such sentences?
2) Do they think it makes more sense to capitalize the first word of a sentence fragment in a question flurry, or do they think it makes more sense to keep it lowercase?
3) Do they think double punctuation or the interrobang should be allowed in formal writing or should these marks be reserved for more informal situations such as social media posts or emails (or perhaps not even in those)?
4) Do they prefer to see polite requests and rhetorical questions punctuated with periods or question marks? Why? Have they ever noticed and thought it was an error when they saw one of these “questions” without a question mark?