Question Your Question Marks

Indirect questions and other questionlike nonquestions

Common mistake: the use of a question mark after an indirect question or other sentence that at first glance may look like a question but really isn’t.

Sometimes, writers get miscued when their sentence contains a word that is indeed often part of a question. A word like why, or wonder, or asked. Or question itself. The error can be glaring (to the likes of me, anyway), but it can also be subtle. So read on even if you think you’ve got this one covered.

In this installment, we’ll discuss …

  • the difference between direct and indirect questions
  • questions that occur inside statements
  • one-word questions
  • questions that aren’t, statements that are
  • sentences that contain more than one question

Direct vs. indirect questions

A direct question is posed explicitly, head-on. An indirect question is asked at a remove.

Direct: Why did he do it?
Indirect: She wondered why he did it.

Direct: What’s in the envelope?
Indirect: I wonder what’s in the envelope.

Direct: The question was, why did he do it?
Indirect: The question was why he did it.

Direct: How would they get out of this?
Indirect: How they would get out of this was the question on everyone’s mind.

The difference between direct and indirect may be subtle:

Direct: You might well ask, what is the best course of action in this case?
Indirect: You might well ask what the best course of action is in this case.

Questions inside statements

A question may occur within a sentence that is, as a whole, a statement. In such a case, the question mark comes after the question, not at the end of the sentence.

Why did he do it? she wondered.

“Why did he do it?” she asked.

She didn’t ask—why bother?—if he had done his homework.

One-word questions

Usually, one-word questions need no question mark. It’s overkill. Italics are often used for the interrogative words, though:

The question was not if but when.
(Styling rule: The interrogative words are in roman here because the sentence as a whole is styled in italics.)

Questions that aren’t, statements that are

Statements can seem to be questions, and vice versa. Your ear can help guide you in punctuating such sentences. Read your sentence aloud. Does your voice rise at the end? If not, it may not be a true question. (See below for a caveat.)

No question mark after a question that’s really a statement. These two examples nicely illustrate the ear principle:

Question: Are you joking?
Statement: You must be joking.

No question mark after a command. Below, the first sentence is meant to be a request. The second one could be a request, depending on the context, but here, imagine a mom ordering a child to stop kicking the back of her seat while she’s driving. Definitely not a request.

Question: Will you please pick up some olive oil?
Command: Will you please stop that.

No question mark after an exclamation. A sentence worded as a question may in some contexts be meant as an exclamation. With these examples, you can easily imagine a context in which an answer is not expected:

How can I thank you!

Why didn’t I quit while I was ahead!

DO use a question mark after a statement that’s really a question. Intention can be the only difference between a question and a statement:

She said she was moving to New Zealand?

He grew five inches in four months?

Note that the ear has its limits. Your voice may tend to rise at the end of a sentence that contains a question but is not itself a question. Again, insert the mark after the question.

Wrong: “Will you pick up some olive oil,” he asked?
Right: “Will you pick up some olive oil?” he asked.

Sentences that contain multiple questions

If a sentence contains two or more questions, consider a question mark after each to distinguish them as separate.

Do you prefer to read in bed? on the couch? in a hammock?

It’s better to use a single question mark when the questions are otherwise distinguished from each other. For example:

Do you prefer to read (a) in bed, (b) on the couch, (c) or in a hammock?

Just FYI, note the change in emphasis when our sentence is written as a single question:

Do you prefer to read in bed, on the couch, or in a hammock?

Any questions? Always feel free to write and ask.