Punctuating Questions

Do you know how to punctuate every kind of question?

Mignon Fogarty,
Episode #264
Punctuating Questions


Today's topic is how to format questions. You think you already know this, don't you? I wonder if you're right.

Everybody knows how to write a plain vanilla question: 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 require an exclamation point, or dealing with a quotation that contains a question, and so on?

Questions Masquerading as Statements

Sometimes even direct questions are 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?

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A Question Flurry

What if you have a bunch of questions and you want to string them all together?

There's 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 (1). It reads Can I have a cookie? two cookies? four cookies? and so on. They aren't complete sentences, so you don't usually capitalize the first letter. The rules are vague, though. Some books say to capitalize the first letter if the questions are “nearly a sentence” (2) or have “sentence-like status” (3), so you have to use your own judgment. I don't consider “two cookies” to be nearly a sentence, but I may consider something like “two cookies and a squeaking ball to chase” to be nearly a sentence, which would make me think about capitalizing it.


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