Easy as punctuation pie! (Part I)

by Haley Schabes

Part I: The forgotten rules of question marks

Do you truly know how to use the question mark? You may be surprised! Question marks can be surprisingly tricky. Check out these forgotten rules about using question marks (and exclamation points) in your papers:

  • Question marks are placed after direct questions, but not indirect ones.
    • Correct: Will you go with me?
    • Incorrect: I’m asking if you will go with me?
  • Use question marks if half of the sentence ends on a question statement.
    • Correct: You don’t care, do you?
    • Correct: You aren’t going to leave, right?
  • This one is tricky: Don’t use question marks for rhetorical questions. Rhetorical questions frequently denote sarcasm and are not asking for an answer in response; therefore they are not direct questions. (Find out more here.)
    • Correct: Why don’t you take a break.
    • Correct: How should I know.
    • Correct: Could I possibly love you more.
  • When a question is being asked in dialogue and is followed by attribution to a speaker, make sure the question mark replaces the usual comma.
    • Correct: “What’s your name?” she asked.
    • Incorrect: “What’s your name,” she asked.
    • Incorrect: “What’s your name,” she asked?
  • This is also true for exclamation points.
    • Correct: “Look out!” she yelled.
    • Incorrect: “Look out,” she yelled.
    • Incorrect: “Look out,” she yelled!
  • In quotes, if the whole sentence is a question, then the question mark is placed on the outside of the quotation marks. If the quote is the question, then it is placed on the inside. This is the same for exclamation points.
    • Correct: What do you think Steve Jobs meant when he said that “innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower”?
    • Correct: My favorite part of the movie A Few Good Men is when Jack Nicholson exclaims, “You can’t handle the truth!”

For more on quote integration, check out this blog post.

Final Tips:

  • Do not overuse question marks. Asking too many questions in a formal paper is unnecessary and detracts from the point of the paper.
  • Remember that using exclamation points is viewed as unprofessional and colloquial; refrain from using them in formal papers.
  • Do not overuse the exclamation point. It characterizes undeveloped and untrained writing.

Write on!

Haley Schabes is a senior majoring in business administration and minoring in education, economics, and Asian studies. Her current aspiration is to teach English abroad after college.

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