Question marks are a common and easily used punctuation mark in the English language. However, they have their own specific rules in fiction that are more strict than general usage. Most of the time, how to place them is pretty straightforward. It’s only in instances of style or voice that require more analysis to determine if a sentence needs to be a question or a statement. These cases, as well as the straightforward rules, are addressed in this post.
Question Mark Usage
The question mark (?) is used at the end of a direct question. This is not to be confused with an indirect question, which is a question embedded in a statement.
Direct question: What is for lunch?
Indirect question: I wonder what is for lunch.
This distinction is important for understanding punctuation rules and the sentence flow and rhythm differences between a direct question and indirect question.
The Flow of a Question Mark
The question mark causes a break in the flow of reading. However, it also changes the tone of voice when read. Often, when read aloud, a question mark suggests a higher intonation at the end of the sentence. Some readers will have the same effect in their mind. This intonation change creates a difference in the flow of a sentence or passage, especially when compared to the direct question’s counterpart, the indirect question.
The difference between the flow of a direct question or indirect question affects character voice, especially with narration and first-person POVs. This can also be affected by italics and quotation marks. For example:
The smell of burnt popcorn and hot dogs blew in from the open window. I swallowed and leaned closer, regretting my lunch detention and provided cafeteria food. What is for lunch?
The smell of burnt popcorn and hot dogs blew in from the open window. I swallowed and leaned closer, regretting my lunch detention and provided cafeteria food. I wondered what was for lunch.
The smell of burn popcorn and hot dogs blew in from the open window. Tina swallowed and leaned closer, regretting her lunch detention and provided cafeteria food. What is for lunch?
The smell of burnt popcorn and hot dogs blew in from the open window. Tina swallowed and leaned closer, regretting her lunch detention and provided cafeteria food. She wondered what was for lunch.
Each instance of a question or indirect question has a different impact on how the sentence is read. As you analyze the flow and rhythm of a question, whether direct or indirect, keep in mind how the difference changes the intonation and style. Depending on what suits the passage best will determine if you should use a direct question with a question mark or an indirect question with a period.
Rules in Fiction
There are a few rules in fiction concerning the question mark that you never want to break. These are:
- Never use more than one question mark in a row (??)
- Never use a question mark with an exclamation point (!?)
- Almost always use a question mark inside the dialogue tags
- Do not use a question mark at the end of an indirection question
Never use more than one question mark in a row (??)
There is no need to duplicate punctuation, especially question marks. Double question marks create more pause than a single question mark, and they suggest to the reader extreme confusion or questioning. It isn’t necessary and most style guides and publishing houses advise against it. While it may be acceptable in social media or texting, it’s never okay in fiction or prose. You should always only use one question mark.
Never use a question mark with an exclamation point (!?)
Like a double question mark, you shouldn’t combine a question mark with an exclamation point. While the combo is common in social media and texting, you don’t need to emphasize excitement in a question through double punctuation. Doing so uses punctuation as a crutch. Instead, the words used should show the surprise or excitement in conjunction with a question.
Almost always place a question mark inside the dialogue tags
In the United States, punctuation almost always goes inside the dialogue tags in fiction, including question marks. There are only a few exceptions to this rule, and most writers get them wrong when they try to implement the exceptions. Publishers, agents, editors, and readers will notice if the question mark is outside of the tag incorrectly.
What are the exceptions? In fiction, the exemptions are when a character is quoting another character. In one exemption, single quotation marks are also used, and the question mark will be placed outside of the single quotation marks. For example:
“Did you just ask me if I ‘always wear blue’?” Mark asked.
This scenario can also be applied to internal dialogue or thoughts, which won’t use single quotation marks. This is the second exemption. For example:
I resumed listening to his monologue. Did he really say “I graduated high school at 13”?
In this sentence, putting the question mark inside the quotation marks would change the meaning of the sentence.
However, these exemptions are not common. Most of the time if you see a quotation mark outside of a dialogue tag, then it needs editing.
Do not use a question mark at the end of an indirection question
Indirect questions end with a period. This is because it is essentially a statement with a question inside it. If an indirect question ends with a question mark, then you need to replace it with a period or revise the sentence to be a direct question. Your editing decision will be determined by how you want the flow or rhythm of the sentence/passage to be, which is discussed earlier.
As you edit, make sure question marks are used properly. Direct questions and indirect questions (which use a period) should be analyzed for context, flow, and voice. Question marks need to be placed properly in dialogue tags and not combined with other punctuation, such as another question mark or exclamation point. As you check that question marks are used properly, you’ll ensure that questions in the text are more powerful and convey exact meanings.