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The Questioning Writer

By Expert Author: Ronald Bell

Question marks should be unquestionably obvious, shouldn't they?
While they cause less confusion than other punctuation marks, there are still some ways to get them wrong.
The primary mix-up is between questions and statements.
A question needs a question mark most of the time (see some exceptions below); whereas a statement usually doesn't.
(You're confused already, aren't you?)
I'll divide the rest of this article into three parts:
1) When question marks are used; 2) When they are not used; and 3) When the choice is yours whether to use them or not.
1) Question marks are necessary when:
You are asking a direct question: eg "Are you going to play tennis tomorrow?"
You are making a statement into a question. "You're coming to the beach on Saturday?" If you want your reader to understand this as a question, punctuate it accordingly.
You are asking a question within a sentence, such as in a parenthetical phrase, e.g:
"Possibly - who knows? - we'll be able to watch the ballet tomorrow."
(The rest of the time, question marks should be at the end of the sentence)
2) Question marks are not necessary when:
You are making a statement, not a question. Obvious, right? However, because some people have the strange habit of raising their voice's pitch at the end of sentences (which is how we verbally indicate questions), even if they're not actually asking anything, they do the equivalent thing when they're writing.
E.g. "You will love this new pair of shoes." It's hard to make this into a question, but some writers still put a question mark at the end of a sentence like this.
You are making an indirect quote. Using my example before, an indirect quote would be: 'Joseph asked if you are going to play tennis tomorrow.' This has become a statement. This is probably the most common way in which writers misuse the question mark. You don't need one here.
Requests courteously used as statements don't need a question mark. For example: "Could you please put your dishes away."
3) When the choice is yours:
Sometimes a sentence can be either a question or a statement depending on how you want to use it.
For example: "Can you write a memo for the staff." This could be a question or a command.
Some questions are much more effective with an exclamation mark instead, e.g: 'How dare you!"
Sort out the questions from the statements, and you should have few problems with this punctuation mark.

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