Questions and Question Marks

Lesson Content

Inquire: A Question of Importance


One of the three punctuation marks that can end a sentence is a question mark. Question marks come at the end of direct questions, but not at the end of indirect questions. In this lesson, we discuss when a question mark should and should not appear.


Big Question

When should a question mark be used?

Read: Questions and Question Marks


DecorativeQuestions are a big part of our lives. We use them to get information, ponder the meaning of life, and engage others in debate. Whether or not we’re aware of them, we use the different types of questions regularly and easily in our speech.

We know how to raise our intonation at the end of a direct question, such as, “Will you be there on time?” We know how to make an indirect question sound more like a statement. “I wonder if you will be there on time.”

In formal writing, however, we need to use the right punctuation marks to ensure that everyone understands when we’re asking a question.

Let’s begin by identifying the types of questions in English: direct questions, indirect questions, and rhetorical questions.

Direct Questions

A direct question looks like this: “What is she doing?” Direct questions always end in a question mark.

Direct questions come in several basic forms: yes/no questions, “question word” questions, and choice questions.

A yes/no question is framed so that the answer can be either “yes” or “no.”

Do you like spaghetti?
Is “4” the correct answer?

“Question word” questions begin with a question word – such as who, what, where, when, how, and why – and generally ask for information.

When does class start?
Why didn’t anyone call me?
Where did they go after the last session?

Choice questions require the listener or reader to choose between two or more things.

Do you prefer coffee or tea?
Did you drive or walk to work?

Indirect Questions

Indirect questions look like this: “I wonder what she is doing.” Indirect questions end with a period and not a question mark.

Indirect questions take the form of direct questions embedded inside of statements.

I wondered whether she would order the steak.
I would be interested to hear how you arrived at that conclusion.

These indirect questions could be restated simply by using the embedded direct question.

Will she order the steak?
How did you arrive at that conclusion?

Rhetorical Questions

A rhetorical question is asked for effect and does not expect an answer. We use rhetorical questions when we want to make a point or we want our listener/reader to think about something. In literature, a rhetorical question is often used for?style?or as a persuasive device.

Here is an example of the type of rhetorical question you might use in a conversation (or argument).

Did you hear me?

Here is a rhetorical question you might expect to see in an advertisement.

You work hard during the week. Don’t you deserve a weekend at the spa?

The English poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley, ends his poem “Ode to the West Wind” with this rhetorical question.

O Wind,
If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?

Final Considerations

Here are some other things to keep in mind about question marks.

A question mark and a period should not stand next to one another.

NOT ?. or .?

The first letter of the word that follows a question mark should always be capitalized in formal writing.

What are you doing? I’m not doing anything.

A question mark should end a sentence that is part statement and part question.

You don’t like me, do you?

When a question occurs in a direct quotation, the question mark should go inside of the right quotation mark.

The president stated, “Are you accusing me?”

Reflect: Inquiring Minds Want to Know


A question mark should be used after an indirect question.

Expand: As with All Things, Questions in Moderation

Questions in Formal Writing

Here are a few additional thoughts about questions in formal and academic writing.

First, not only must we punctuate questions properly, but we need to be careful about when and how often we use questions. Formal and academic writing are usually focused on providing answers to questions. Therefore, we want to avoid asking too many direct questions in our writing. Our experience with informal writing, such as advertising, may lead us to think that it would be an effective hook to open a paper with a question like, “Have you ever wondered about ____?” In formal writing, however, this is generally considered a weak opening. While it might be engaging to the reader, it does little to establish your purpose or to direct the reader’s thinking in a specific direction.

DecorativeRelated to using a question as an opening hook, inexperienced writers often want to use direct questions in the position normally reserved for the thesis statement of a paper or report. Unfortunately, using a question in this position also weakens a paper. Remember, our goal is to answer questions, not ask them. With a thesis statement, our goal is to present the topic of a paper and make clear our position in relation to the topic. Using a question as a thesis for a paper does not accomplish this.

In formal and academic writing, we want to use direct questions when the context calls for them. We should avoid using them for stylistic effect. Like many things in life, moderation is crucial. If you find more than three or four question marks in a paper you are writing, you should consider carefully whether all of those direct questions are necessary.

Lesson Resources

Lesson Toolbox

Additional Resources and Readings

Question Marks

A summary of rules for questions and using question marks

Question mark

A history and summary of global uses of the question mark

Question Mark

Rules and examples for questions and question marks

Lesson Glossary


AJAX progress indicator
  • direct question
    a direct question asks a simple, direct question and ends in a question mark
  • indirect question
    indirect questions take the form of direct questions embedded inside of statements and end in periods instead of question marks
  • rhetorical question
    a rhetorical question is asked for effect and does not expect an answer

License and Citations

Content License

Lesson Content:

Authored and curated by Robert Reynolds, Ph.D. and John Thorburn Ph.D. for The TEL Library. CC BY NC SA

Media Sources

DecorativeQuestion Advisor Rush Pebbles Question Mark NatureeminensPixabayCC 0
DecorativeAsk Sign Design Creative Information Helpterimakasih0PixabayCC 0
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