The Question Mark (?) When and How to Use Question Marks Correctly

Last Updated on April 2, 2021

What is (?) called? Question marks are easy enough to understand right? You ask a question, then you put a question mark after it; it’s simple. Well, actually question marks are slightly more complex than we were led to believe in school. So, let’s take a look at the humble question mark a little closer, and we’ll even finish on a quiz at the end for you to test your new knowledge.

The Question Mark (?)

What is a Question Mark?

A question mark is the bit of punctuation you add at the end of a question to indicate that you are actually inquiring about something. It looks like this ‘?’ and you add it whenever you ask a question in a bit of writing to show that a question has been asked.

What is a Question?

A question is simply a sentence that is worded or expressed in a way that shows you want to receive some information. Essentially you are looking for somebody to provide information in the form of an answer. Typically, there are two main types of questions: direct and indirect.

Direct Questions

These are just simply where you ask a question that you want to receive a direct answer too. It’s straight to the point. Something like this: ‘What’s the problem?’.

Indirect Questions

An indirect question is slightly more formal or polite. It isn’t expressed as a question directly in some cases, so in these cases, a question mark isn’t used. Instead, it is said as a statement that simply implies that an answer is required. Something like this: “I wonder what the problem is.”

An indirect question can also be asked as a question within a question for a more polite approach. It still indicates that an answer is required and it’s still expressed as a question, but it’s slightly more formal. Something like this: “Can you tell me what the problem is?” This combines the questions “What’s the problem?” and “Can you tell me?” to create a slightly less direct way of eliciting information.

Where to Put a Question Mark

Depending on the structure of a sentence a question mark might need to be placed in different positions, so it’s good to understand these general rules.

Sentences with Quotation Marks

If your question is asked by the person who said the original quote then the question mark must be placed inside to indicate this. If however, you are asking a question about a quote, then you must keep the question mark outside of the quotation marks to avoid confusion. Here is how it would look:

“Should we go to the park?” she asked – here the original speaker is asking the question, so the question mark must be included in the quotation marks.

Do you agree with the idea that “the past does not define our future”? – because the question is being asked about the quote, it must be included outside the quotation marks to indicate that the sentence as a whole is the question, rather than the quote itself.

Sentences with Parentheses

Parentheses work much the same way as quotation marks. If the question is being asked within the parentheses but not the whole sentence, then the question mark would appear within the parentheses to highlight this. If, however, the question was being asked as a whole and parentheses were being used to simply add more information, then the question mark would appear outside the parentheses. It would look like this:

Chad was looking at me (or was he?). – here the question is only being asked within the parentheses so it is inside the parentheses that the question mark must appear.

Was Chad looking at me (he might have just been avoiding looking at the sun)? – the question is asked as a whole so the question mark appears outside of the parentheses because the information provided within the parentheses isn’t a question, it’s just additional information.

Question Marks with Other Punctuation

The most common way that a question mark will be combined with other punctuation is with an exclamation mark. This indicates that a question is being asked whilst shocked or angry. When the two are combined, this is known as an interrobang. It is usually expressed as two separate punctuation marks ‘?!’ but there are some word processors that can allow you to combine the two. Here is how an interrobang would work:

What are you doing?! – the question mark usually comes first because that is the primary function of the sentence. The exclamation mark follows to indicate tone and the mood in which the question was asked.

Multiple Question Marks

In informal writing multiple question marks can be used to express excitement or increased confusion about something (it depends on the context). In more formal writing and fiction writing you wouldn’t expect to see multiple question marks in a row unless the writer was trying to show a text message that a character received from a friend for example. Here is how multiple question marks would work if you were messaging a friend:

You’re expecting a baby????? Congratulations! – this indicates that you’re excited by the news but you’re asking to make sure. Again, multiple question marks should only really be used in informal circumstances.

When and How to Use Question Marks

The question mark is an important part of the English language and was developed sometime around the 18th Century.  We use a question mark after an interrogative sentence in English. Many people use it incorrectly or don’t use it when required.

Here we are going to explain how and when to use the question mark (?) in English.

We use a question mark to end a direct question.

Question marks end all direct questions in English.


  • Have you seen the film yet?
  • What are you doing?
  • What is this?
  • Are you happy?
  • Is this your house?
  • How much does it cost?
  • Where do we go?
  • Who is that girl?
  • Do you like coffee?

When you are changing a question from direct speech into indirect speech, you end the sentence with a full stop, not a question mark. Thus, don’t use a question mark at the end of a question in reported speech.

Direct questions:

  • She asked, “Where did he stay?”
  • Have you got a computer?

Reported questions:

  • She asked me where he had stayed. (Correct)
  • She asked me where he had stayed? (Incorrect)
  • He wanted to know whether I had a computer. (Correct)
  • He wanted to know whether I had a computer?. (Incorrect)

We use question marks to express uncertainty.


  • You don’t know him? He’s your neighborhood.
  • He is sick? I saw him going out this morning.
  • John was born in 1988 (?). 

We use a question mark to end a tag question.

Question tags are used at the end of statements to ask for confirmation.


  • We have never seen that, have we?
  • They’re not doing very well, are they?
  • He finished on time, didn’t he?
  • I’m intelligent, aren’t I?
  • There weren’t any problems when you talked to Jack, were there?

We use question marks in a series of questions.


  • Is it good in form? style? meaning?
  • He’s been hospitalized? Why didn’t you tell me? Is he better now?

Indirect Questions and Question Marks

When to Use a Period

Use a period if the question is actually disguised as a statement that is subtly trying to have a question answered. Like this:

I wonder if I can sit here. – this is asking a question subtly, but it’s being used as a statement, so a period is used instead of a question mark.

Expressing Doubt

You can use an indirect question to express doubt, or you’re uncertain about something. It can also function as an indirect question masked as a statement. Like this:

I don’t know if she went shopping – this functions as an indirect question by expressing doubt.

Question Mark Quiz

All correct answers will be shown at the end. Simply decide if the following sentences or statements are correct or incorrect.

  1. “Can we go to the cinema,” she asked?
  2. The following is an example of an indirect question: “Are you OK?”
  3. I think it’s raining out (or is it?).
  4. Is it raining out (the windows seemed wet but it could have been the leaky roof again)?
  5. The following is an example of a direct question: “Could you tell me if you’re OK?”


  1. Incorrect.
  2. Incorrect
  3. Correct
  4. Correct
  5. Incorrect

1)”Can we go to the cinema?” she asked. – this would be the correct answer because the question is asked within the quotation marks so the question mark must appear here too.

2)”Are you OK?” is a direct question. You could turn it into an indirect question by increasing the politeness and embedding the question within another question. Like this: “Can you tell me if you’re OK?”

3)This is correct because the question is asked within the parentheses only.

4)This is correct because the parentheses only serve to add more information to the question that is being asked, so the question mark must appear outside the parentheses.

5)”Could you tell me if you’re OK?” is an example of an indirect question. To be direct you would have to remove the “Could you tell me?” question and simply ask “Are you OK?”

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