When to use a question mark in English

In our travels around the web, and in the content we edit, we see one mistake over and over again – putting a question mark where it doesn’t belong.

Here’s a quick guide on how to use the question mark for non native English writers.

Here at How’s my English we never pretend that English is easy to learn and we have nothing but admiration for those who communicate in English when it’s not their first language.

Question mark sign
When to use a question mark

Our aim is to help those people improve at a language that is hideously complicated and often baffling.

But we’ve seen the dreaded question mark trip up even the best and most natural writers.

A missing question mark – or one where it shouldn’t be – makes for a jarring experience for the reader, and sometimes changes the sense of a sentence.

When to use a question mark

The simple answer is, you only use a question mark on a direct question.

Below are four sentences containing a question mark, taken from a real website.

Can you tell which are questions? Answers are at the bottom of the post.

Which of these questions should have a question mark?

How do non-native English speakers misuse the question mark?

Mostly, we see question marks used where they don’t belong.

A common trap is to use a question mark at the end of a sentence beginning ‘How to…’

Don’t fall into the trap of thinking a question is any phrase that begins with the words who, what, when, where, how or why.

Ending a sentence starting with ‘How to’ with a question mark is wrong because it’s not a question – but if you began the sentence How do I.. it would be.

Even experienced writers can get this wrong. It’s an easy mistake to make!

Notice the title of this post doesn’t use a question mark either.

Other uses of the question mark in English writing

As always with English, there are other ways you can use a question mark, for example to suggest doubt.

There’s a more in-depth guide from the Oxford Dictionaries here:

Image answer: None of the sentences in the image are questions.

Wrapping it up

We hope you find this useful and please feel free to ask questions in the comments below.

Photo by Colin_K

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