Main types of questions
According to the Oxford A-Z of Grammar and Punctuation, there are 3 main types of questions: the yes or no question; the either/or question, and the open question. They all require question marks at the end of the sentence instead of a full stop.
1. Do you want some milk? (A question where you can only say yes or no)
2. Do you want some milk or orange juice? (The either/or question which requires a response of either milk or orange juice - a good one to ask a child)
3. What do you want to drink? (The open question leaving the person free to answer)
When is a question not a question?
According to ‘The Collins Improve your Punctuation’ by Graham King, a question asked directly requires a question mark, but an indirect question doesn’t. For example ‘Can we go to the park?’ (direct) as opposed to ‘She asked if she could go to the park’ (indirect).
This may sound easy with the examples above, but a long indirect question could be misinterpreted to be a question when it isn’t. For example:
Can we go to the park, bring our bikes and take a packed lunch, said my daughters.
Turning this into a direct question it could read:
My daughters said, “Can we go to the park?”.
What do the Spanish do?
Graham King also explains that the Spanish put the question mark at the beginning of the sentence instead of the end. The reason for this is to signal that a question is coming. The English language requires it to be placed at the end of a sentence. This poses a problem when we have a long sentence – as the reader wouldn’t know it’s a question until the end.
Are there any grey areas?
As with many English language rules, there are always exceptions. Graham King calls these semi-questions, one where your question reads more as a request than a question. He says ‘if you can’t work it out logically, maybe your ear will guide you’.
Some examples of requests are: please close the door behind you and can you please stop shouting.
Feeling questions like I wonder if I should go to the park is another grey area and it’s up to the writer what sounds right to them. Sometimes you may feel that an exclamation mark is better suited than a question mark, when it has an angry tone such as Can you sit down!.
My thoughts – That took longer than I thought today. I almost didn’t study this today, as I’ve never really had an issue with deciding whether to put a question mark or not. Having said that, I was curious if the question that I wrote in an email at work yesterday, please send your response by close of business today, was a question or not. Now I’m thinking that it sounds more like a request and I possibly only added the word ‘please’ at the beginning for politeness. I could have said ‘your response is required by close of business today’, which would definitely have been a request.
Having enjoyed a glass of white wine this evening followed by fish and chips, I’m feeling a bit sleepy now. Time for my chamomile tea, and an early night for the first time this week. (Notice how I put the comma after ‘chamomile tea’ and before the ‘and an early night’. If you saw note 5 yesterday you will know why I think that should be there…).
Wishing you a weekend full of fun and sunshine.
John Seely The Oxford A-Z of Grammar & Punctuation, USA
Graham King The Collins Improve your Punctuation, UK