The question mark (?) indicates that a question is being asked directly in a sentence or phrase. For indirect questions, English uses a different device, explained below. Using question marks for indirect questions is a common mistake made by English learners.
The punctuation mark (?), when you stop to think about it, is an oddly shaped mark, and its origins and early history are not entirely clear. One theory is that it evolved from an early musical notation device intended to represent a rising tone.
(?) Question Mark
When to use a question mark
The mark (?) is used at the end of a direct question.
- When would you like to come over for dinner?
- Is it time to feed the cat?
- She’s terrific. Why did you break up with her?
- What is the best thing I could do right now?
- Which model gets better gas mileage?
The question mark may also be used to indicate a single word or a phrase that is asking a question—either by itself or inserted into a sentence.
- “Bring me the book from the top shelf.” —”This one?”
- What’s a good day to meet? Tuesday?
- I think we should buy the car. Ready?
- Do you really want to go out dressed like that? Looking like a plastic bag?
- The players on the Premier League winning team this year (Man United?) will reap millions in commercial endorsement contracts.
Do not use question marks for indirect questions—sentences in which a question is being described.
- I asked if the shipment would arrive today.
- My mother wants to know if I’ll be home before midnight.
- Voters are being asked to decide whether they will approve a tax increase?
How to use question marks with quotation marks
Whether or not to put a mark (?) inside or outside a closing quotation mark depends on whether what’s inside the quotation marks is a question. If it is, put the question mark inside the closing quotation mark.
- Susan asked, “Do you think it’s realistic to finish the project by Friday?”
- Every day, a soldier may face this question: “Is this the day I die?”
If the quoted material is not asking a question, put the question mark outside the quotation mark.
- Didn’t the boss say we have “15 minutes for a break, and not a minute more”?
- Remind me: which poem contains the line “I heard a fly buzz when I died”?