Question mark: did you know these rules?

The question mark (?) is another simple punctuation mark we use every day just to make enquiries or ask for information, and it’s as simple as that. It is also called an interrogation mark or interrogation point and it is used to end a statement that is clearly a question.

However, if you sometimes wonder if a question mark is necessary, and you look at an expression for a while before you decide that, this is for you.

Look at these examples:
1. Have they found the missing ring?
2. What kind of world do we live in?
3. He asked if we were coming to the party?*
4. Tell her to ask him what the chairman said?*

Generally, the question mark is used for interrogative phrases or clauses, which implies that when you have a direct question, a question mark is required. Thus, examples 1 and 2 above are questions but 3 and 4 are not.

Now, when is a question direct? A direct question comes from the speaker to the person expected to provide the answer, or it’s quoted verbatim (word for word) by another person.


  1. When will you come back to Lagos, sir?
  2. Can I eat shawarma and cake together?
  3. ‘Is this your house?’ Tim asked innocently.
  4. I’m wondering: will he ask for the receipt?

However, an indirect question is a question someone else asked, recalled with modification to the original words.


  1. He asked him when he would come back to Lagos.
  2. I asked whether I could eat shawarma and cake together.
  3. Tim innocently asked if that was her house.
  4. I was wondering if he would ask for the receipt.

However, there are other rules about the question mark we need to point out because they are absolutely relevant.

  • There are some questions that do not always need answers because they are general issues or are asked to create dramatic effects. They are called rhetorical questions.
  1. Will you shut up and sit down!
  2. Aren’t you a darling.
  3. Why do bad things happen to good people?

Note: The context of each expression above is different, hence the different punctuation marks. Example 1 is a command, 2 is a compliment, but 3 is a general question. Rhetorical questions end with any of the above punctuation marks (exclamation mark, full stop, question mark).

Grammarians have argued about when it is appropriate to use question marks in rhetorical questions, but the point is: use a question mark if a rhetorical question is more of a generalized question.


  • Use the question mark where it belongs, no matter where it is embedded.
  1. Who said: ‘I’m the world’s greatest’?
  2. Who wrote ‘Who rules the world?’
  3. Who wrote Who rules the world?
  4. What happened in Trial at the gate?

Note: Example 2 above does not require double question marks, the first should be the only one. If the title is italicized and it’s a question (as in 3), the question mark should also be italicized. In example 4, the question mark is not part of the title, so it is not in italics.


  • A question mark is not required in polite request.
  1. Would everyone put their files on the table and move to the office on the left.
  2. Can we have the slides while I explain the market growth statistics.

Note: Both examples above are different from ‘would you like a cup of coffee?’ because they are what should be done, unlike the coffee offer which is a direct question and needs approval.


  • After an abbreviation that requires a full stop, a question mark is still necessary.
  1. Do you know the full meaning of ‘etc.’?
  2. Will he be ready by 6 a.m.?


  • Use capital letters after brief questions that follow the main question (as in 1 below). However, some writers use small letters for special effects (as in 2 below).  Alternatively, some might choose to use a different style(as in 3 below).
  1. What exactly is the problem? Our machine? The task? The ultimatum?
  2. What exactly is the problem? our machine? the task? the ultimatum
  3. What exactly is the problem: our machine, the task or the ultimatum?


  • A question mark can be used if a fact is not confirmed or the speaker is not sure about it.
  1. They requested for 320(?) packs but Oxymal Limited delivered only 300.
  2. He became the youngest king in AD 345 (?).


Summarily, question marks are used for direct and rhetorical questions that are more of enquiries than declarative statements or commands.


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