Are You Asking a Question or Not?

Wondering when to use a question mark? The answer is simple. When you expect an answer. Yet, I continually see writers getting “question mark happy” and sticking these bits of punctuation where they have no business being.

Direct questions—the kind journalists ask to get a story—demand an answer. They are often referred to as the 5 (or 6) W’s: who, what, when, where, why, and how.

What happened? Who was involved? When did it happen? Where? Why? How? Direct questions almost always begin with some variation of the 5 W’s. If one of these isn’t the first word in the sentence, it’s probably in there some place, like: “Well, just what are you doing in there?” or “Just who do you think you are?”

Sentences that begin with a being verb like are, is, were, and the like also indicate a direction question.

  • Are you going to Scarborough Fair?
  • Is anyone going with you?
  • May I come along?

All these questions demand an answer and a question mark.

And now to complicate things, just a little. We also pose indirect questions, but we don’t expect answers to these questions.

  • I wondered why he went in there.
  • I asked her what the problem was.

Sometimes writers prefer not to have question marks following rhetorical questions (a matter of choice):

  • Who could blame him.

No one really expects an answer to a question like that. And neither do these indirect questions require question marks.

Got it?

8 Responses to “Are You Asking a Question or Not?”

  1. Venkatesh Iyer March 14, 2014 at 1:15 am #

    I disagree with the last example (the rhetorical question, Who ould blame him). IT should have a question mark after it. A rhetorical question IS a question, unlike the implied question in “I wondered why he went in there”.

    • cslakin March 14, 2014 at 6:29 am #

      I understand. However, most writing instructors and texts do say that a question like that doesn’t take a question mark. Personally, I feel it’s a matter of style and voice that determines. But the consensus runs with the above style (no question mark).

  2. winterbayne March 14, 2014 at 6:49 am #

    Thank you. This does make it simple for me to remember.

  3. Destination Infinity March 14, 2014 at 7:10 am #

    I read this chapter in your book, just today. My life was simple *and good* until I decided to edit my novel, myself 😛

    Actually I wanted to use self-edit (in the above sentence), but I wasn’t sure whether the – comes inbetween self and edit. So, I changed the sentence. This, in spite of reading that section from your book too 🙂

    Destination Infinity

    • cslakin March 14, 2014 at 8:08 am #

      Words with self are hyphenated: self-edit, self-inflicted, self-esteem, etc. It’s okay if all this makes you a bit self-conscious!

  4. Katherine James March 14, 2014 at 9:07 am #

    Thanks for this.

    I have a quick question. Would you recommend using an editing software programme?

    I have been searching for one, but haven’t found one that is all that great yet (at least in regards to correcting grammar).

  5. John Kurtze March 14, 2014 at 11:33 am #

    Even though I have the above information in your book, I enjoy the comments and your replies. They really bring your ideas to life. It is truly a weakness in my writing. I am self-conscious when I comment on your column on grammar. You are the Guru for grammar. Who could blame me.

  6. Norah Jansen March 14, 2014 at 12:37 pm #

    I was taught that a rhetorical question “neither expects nor requires an answer” so I would never use a question mark. Thanks for another great post.

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