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Style Manual

Question marks

Users expect direct questions and requests to end with a question mark. Indirect questions, commands and rhetorical questions can take other punctuation.

Question marks usually go after the last letter in a sentence

Like other punctuation marks, question marks stay with the text they refer to. Usually, this is immediately after the last letter of the last word of the sentence.

Brackets and quotation marks change the position of question marks

For brackets and quotation marks, place the question mark:

  • before a closing bracket or quotation mark if the question is part of the text in the brackets or quotation marks
  • after the closing bracket or quotation mark if the question is part of the surrounding text.
Example

Question mark before the closing bracket or quote

She asked, ‘Is the report due on Tuesday?

They decided (and why wouldn’t they?) to cancel the program.

Question mark after the closing bracket or quote

What did she mean by ‘the report is due ASAP’?

Did they decide to cancel the program (the EDTA program)?

Inserted question marks can show uncertainty

Question marks can express doubt and uncertainty about dates or other specific details.

Example

John Limeburner (?1743–1785) was a convict who arrived in Australia on the First Fleet.

Pery Baylee (1784–?) was commandant of Macquarie Harbour penal station in Van Diemen’s Land from 1831 to 1833.

Direct questions and requests end in a question mark

Direct questions end with a question mark. Most begin with one of these words:

  • ‘who’, what’, ‘when’, ‘where’, ‘why’, how’, ‘which’, ‘whose’
  • ‘are’, ‘is’, ‘was’, ‘were’
  • ‘has’, have’
  • ‘did’, ‘do’, ‘does’
  • ‘can’, ‘will’, ‘could’, ‘would’, ‘should’, ‘might’.

These types of questions are called interrogative sentences.

Example

Who will attend the meeting next week?

Whose turn is it to take the minutes?

Are you ready to start the meeting?

Have they finished voting?

Did you attend the meeting?

Will the new government deliver a budget surplus?

Could you please make your changes by tomorrow?

Some sentences don’t start with one of the words such as ‘who’, ‘could’ and ‘does’ but still end with a question mark.

Example

That’s your proposal?

Sometimes questions are tagged on to the end of another clause.

Example

They would say that, wouldn’t they?

Requests are often framed as questions. Requests suggest that people have the option of saying ‘no’.

Example

Can you consider who your future colleagues might be?

Can you please upload your edits?

Indirect questions and commands don’t use a question mark

Indirect questions don’t end with question marks, even if they include a word such as ‘who’ or ‘does’.

Example

He asked who will attend the meeting next week.

Indirect questions are often used in headings.

Example

Who we are [Heading]

How to submit a claim [Heading]

To turn indirect questions into direct questions you can:

  • rearrange the words so the verb comes before the subject
  • introduce a word such as ‘can’ or ‘why’ – but make sure there is a subject.
Example

Who are we?

How do I submit a claim?

Guidance in this manual recommends to avoid questions as headings, except for Easy Read materials.

Spellcheckers often recommend that you change indirect questions to end with a question mark. This isn’t always correct. It depends on whether you are asking a question.

Instructions and commands aren’t framed as questions. They don’t start with words such as ‘what’, ‘are’ or ‘does’, and don’t end with a question mark.

Commands and instructions don’t suggest that people have a choice.

Example

Consider who your future colleagues might be.

Please upload your edits.

Rhetorical questions end in a question mark or exclamation mark

Depending on the context, a rhetorical question can end in a question mark or an exclamation mark. Exclamation marks add emphasis – this can make a rhetorical question sound blunt.

Example

Will you ever stop asking questions?

Will you ever stop asking questions!

Release notes

The digital edition has targeted advice on how to use a question mark. It has the same information as the sixth edition but provides more examples to help users.

The Content Guide had no specific guidance about question marks.

About this page

References

Dixon JC and Bolitho B (2005–2019) Course notes and exercises: editing and proofreading for the workplace, Centre for Continuing Education, Australian National University, Canberra.

Murphy EM with Cadman H (2014) Effective writing: plain English at work, 2nd edition, Lacuna, Westgate.

Seely J (2001) Oxford everyday grammar, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Stilman S (2004) Grammatically correct, Writer’s Digest Books, Ohio.

Truss L (2003) Eats, shoots and leaves: the zero tolerance approach to punctuation, Profile Books, London.

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