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We’ve all sent or received texts like these:

8:07 PM: I am hoping you will come pick me up after practice?
3:16 PM: Yes, will you be waiting outside.
3:29 PM: I will be. Coach just asked if I can stay after to help clean up?

But what do all these texts have in common? They each misuse a question mark in some way, whether that be a missing question mark or an unnecessary question mark. While our punctuation guide covers the general use of all punctuation marks, including question marks, this guide will dive into question marks in particular, providing rules for usage. 

What is a Question Mark, and What Purpose Does it Serve?

The question mark, a sentence-concluding punctuation mark, fills in for a period to indicate that a sentence is a direct question. Most, but not all, direct questions begin with interrogative words (who, what, where, when, why, how) or some form of a primary verb (be, have, do).


  • Why did she decide to move to New York?
  • How many goals did you score in your soccer game?
  • When will we have dinner?
  • Are you coming over tonight?
  • Does the gymnastics team have what it takes to win?
  • Had you already eaten dinner before you got sick?

While most direct questions begin with interrogative words or primary verbs, some direct questions resemble statements:


  • You told him that I would volunteer?
  • He said that about me?
  • Your grandma just turned one hundred years old?

Differentiating direct questions from indirect questions

Direct questions seek an immediate answer, while indirect questions typically request, demand, or wonder about an answer. In line with these goals, direct questions take a question mark while indirect questions take a period.

To differentiate between a direct question and indirect question in your writing, try verbally rehearsing the sentence in your mind, noting any inquisitive change in tone. In speech, the speaker’s voice inflection increases or changes tone to indicate the direct question (“You want me to go get it?”). While writing, it can help to mentally (silently, especially in public!) verbalize your sentence, to verify if the sentence is a direct question or not. 

Direct question:

  • Dad’s bringing home pizza?
  • The dog made this mess?
  • Our golf team won their game last night?

Indirect question:

  • Dad asked if we wanted pizza for dinner.
  • I wonder if the dog made this mess.
  • No one knows if our golf team won last night or not.

Question marks tell our readers that they should read the sentence as a question. If you intend for the sentence to be read as a declaration, speculation, or statement, do not use the quotation mark.

General Rules for When (and When Not) to Add a Question Mark

1. Use a question mark to punctuate a direct question, and use a period to punctuate an indirect question.

Usually, even speculation, requests, or wondering about unknown answers still qualifies as an indirect question. Only directly asked questions, those that feature an inquisitive voice inflection when articulated out loud, take a question mark.

Direct question: Will you buy me dinner?
Indirect question: I wanted to know if you would buy me dinner.

2. When a direct question occurs within a larger sentence, cap the direct question with a question mark.

This applies if the sentence ends with a direct question, or even if the direct question gets embedded into an early portion of the sentence. In either case, place a question mark after the direct question. 

Sentence-ending question:

  • You want to be my friend, don’t you?
  • There’s no test today, right?
  • They won the game, correct?

If the question concludes mid-sentence, use the question mark as a comma, keeping the following word uncapitalized.

Mid-sentence question:

  • Will it rain today? she wondered while picking a jacket.
  • How can I find satisfaction? questions Bernard.
  • Does this mean our team is getting disbanded? he fearfully asked.

3. With quotation marks, place the question mark inside the quotation if the question falls in the quoted material.

In other words, if the quotation contains a question, then the question mark goes within the quotation marks. When inserting a question mark inside the quotation marks, the question mark replaces any punctuation that would otherwise lie immediately outside the quotation marks—no need for a comma or period if the quotation features the sentence’s last word and caps it with a question mark.

However, if the sentence continues after the quotation, use end-punctuation to cap the sentence as you would normally.

Mid-sentence quotation:

  • “Will you win the trial, Atticus?” asked Scout.
  • “Must I pick between truth and happiness?” questioned Lenina.
  • “How do I listen to my heart?” wondered the boy.

Whole-sentence question:

  • Do you know who said “What we think, we become”?
  • How can we apply Angelou’s line, “Still I Rise” this very moment?
  • What does Green’s line “It hurt because it mattered” mean to you?

Sentence-ending quotation:

  • The famous dairy industry slogan reads, “Got Milk?” I do, in fact.
  • Joker asks, “Why so serious?” Batman frowns in response.
  • Hamlet famously asked, “To be or not to be?”

4. With parentheses, question marks follow the same rules as with quotation marks. If the parenthetical section contains a question, question marks go inside the parentheses.

However, if the parentheses exist within a larger sentence that asks a question, place the question mark outside the parentheses. For more information about parentheses, check out our Punctuation Guide.

In-parentheses question:

  • Our coach told us (why did we believe him?) never to workout.
  • People always (why?) stop walking in the middle of an aisle.
  • She broke up with me. (How is this possible?)

Whole-sentence question:

  • Why did she (your teacher) say that to you?
  • When are you coming (or at least planning to come) over?
  • Have the kids eaten dinner (including the broccoli) yet?

Sentence-end parentheses:

  • Are you coming to our game (tonight)?
  • Have you bought that new video game (Call of Duty)?
  • Do you regret investing (in stocks)?

Wrapping up

Many things in the English language, such as questions, come to us so naturally in speech, but begin to seem confusing when we write them out. In many cases, though not all, you can trust your intuition when using punctuation; for example, if you hear a question mark in your mental rehearsal of a sentence, that sentence probably does contain a question mark. Same with question marks inside parentheses and quotation marks—if you hear a question inside those little blurbs, add the question mark inside those little blurbs. In most cases, using your speech intuition as a guide will help your writing.

But of course, the written language is always full of curveballs, so if you ever feel uncertain about when and how to use a question mark, this guide will be here for you. Write on.

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While trusting instincts works sometimes, knowing the rules that govern the use of question marks can help writers avoid using them incorrectly.
While trusting instincts works sometimes, knowing the rules that govern the use of question marks can help writers avoid using them incorrectly.
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