Question that?

Sreedhar Mandyam

girl writing._resized-opt-f

Have you wondered how did the symbol for the question mark (?) originate? Such a symbol is also called glyph. There are many accounts for it but one of them seems more reasonable than the others. In Latin  quaestio meant to question. It later got abbreviated to qo at the end of the sentence. From there apparently, the lower case 0 began to be written under the lower case q. This evolved into the question mark symbol, ‘?’. This question mark symbol is not part of the original Devanagari script the basis for Sanskrit, Hindi and many other Indian languages. These languages did not have any symbol for a question mark or most of the other punctuation symbols. Today the symbol for the period, comma, exclamation mark, question mark are liberally used in the scripts of these languages.

Where to use it?

In English, it is obvious that the question mark symbol is used at the end of a direct question.

Examples: How are you? Where have you been? Why do things fall towards the Earth?

Any sentence beginning with What, Why Where, When, How ends up with a question mark symbol. Any other direct questions using other words also have a question mark at the end.

Examples: Are you coming tomorrow? Is it going to rain today?, Has she been skipping the medicine?

Sentences which do not have any interrogative word but the intent is to question should also have a question mark.

Examples: This is your marks in Maths?  You want to have rice or roti? You want Vanilla and Pista?

So far so good. It gets a little complicated as we go forward. When there are multiple questions within a sentence should we use a single question mark in the end or question mark at the end of each question within a sentence?

How would you punctuate the following sentence:

Is he coming on Monday Wednesday or Friday

Should we write
Is he coming on Monday, Wednesday or Friday?
Is he coming on Monday? Wednesday? or Friday?

In the above case since all the three refer to the ‘days of the week,’ we can use a single question mark at the end of the sentence. But if three different things are being referred to as in the sentence below then there is greater confusion.

When are you travelling by which train, in which class

In the above sentence, you need to put a question mark at the end of each question within a sentence

When are you travelling? by which train? in which class?

Same goes for the following sentence
Is the song by Kishore Kumar? from the 70s movie Deewar? with Amitabh in it?

Doubtful content

When we are doubtful of the content of the sentence we express that doubt by putting in a question mark within parenthesis. This can be for names, numbers dates etc.

Example. He was born in 1883(?) and he died in 1929. Here the question mark conveys the doubt about the content 1883. We are not sure of the date hence we use the question mark in parenthesis to convey that doubt.

Indirect questions

We do not use a question mark for indirect questions.

The teacher asked me why I was late for the class. The phrase, why I was late for the class is an indirect question, (it is a question the teacher asked the student and the student is relating it to us, hence it is an indirect question) hence we use a period at the end of the sentence but not a question mark.

Rhetorical questions

Rhetorical questions are questions that are asked for effect but not expecting an answer. For instance

You think you can walk in any time is it.
Who knows when the train will come.

The teacher or the passenger is not expecting an answer to their question. So although in general there is no need for putting in a question mark it would not be considered wrong if you put in. The choice is left to you.

Tailpiece: In the Spanish language you put in a question mark at the beginning and end of the question. In the beginning of the sentence you put in an inverted question mark and at the end of the sentence, you put in the regular question mark. ¿Hablaste con Ganesh? It means, Did you speak to Ganesh? Now, aren’t you happy we just have only one question mark in English? Tender mercies!