Wondering About Question Marks?

Today I received a sales message by email that included this sentence in the opening paragraph:

I am contacting you today to see if you might have an interest in marketing your product in China?

That is a statement. Why does it end with a question mark?

A statement should end with a period (full stop)–not a question mark. These examples are all correct:

  • Rochelle asked whether you have considered taking a business writing class.
  • I wonder whether Cecilia will be able to meet the visitors from Ottawa.
  • The only question she asked was when the registration fee would be due.
  • Why he estimated the proposal preparation fees at $12,000 is a mystery. 
  • The important question is not when to retire–it's how to afford it.

If you want to use a question mark, write a question:

  • Rochelle asked, "Has Jen considered taking a business writing class?"
  • I wonder: Will Cecilia will be able to meet the visitors from Ottawa?
  • The only question she asked was this: When will the registration fee be due?
  • Why did he estimate the proposal preparation fees at $12,000? It is a mystery. 
  • The important question is not when to retire. It's, How can we afford it?

In spoken communication, you may choose to raise your pitch at the end of a statement to indicate the questioning aspect of it. For example, if the sales message I quoted above had come by phone, the person might have said it this way, with a higher pitch at the end:

I am contacting you today to see if you might have an interest in marketing your product in China?

As I was checking the rules in The Gregg Reference Manual, I noted Gregg's helpful comment: "When the verb precedes the subject (shall we, can we), the question is direct [and requires a question mark]. When the verb follows the subject (we shall, we can), the question is indirect [and requires a period]."

I am wondering whether you found this blog post helpful. (No question mark.) Did you?

Syntax Training

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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

8 comments on “Wondering About Question Marks?”

  • Very helpful indeed. I sometimes make that mistake. It’s a simple thing but it may lead to a misunderstanding so thanks for posting.

  • I have a coworker who abuses the question marks. She thinks that by ending a statement with a question mark, one “softens” the tone and makes it seem more polite.

  • whilst speaking, ending a statement with a questionmark, i.e., going up in tone just makes the speaker seem unconfident in their topic because it seems that they are asking for your approval.

  • One other abuse of the question mark I sometimes see is the use of multiple question marks instead of a single one at the end of a question. I’ve only seen it in email communications. I don’t know how it is intended to enhance the message but, especially for questions that begin with “Why”, it communicates something like, “Hey, you idiot, why do you blah, blah, blah?????” It may be OK in casual communications but doesn’t seem to have a place in business communications.

  • Thank you for sharing your examples.

    Vicky, thanks for mentioning your coworker’s habit. In speech her choice may be appropriate at times to soften the tone. But if she abuses it, as you say, the questioning tone can become a distraction.

    Sky, I appreciate your mentioning that a questioning tone may come across as a lack of confidence. I have been in meetings when a speaker’s ideas seemed less powerful when presented that way.

    Becky, excellent reminder on multiple question marks! Thanks for sharing it.


  • Lynn
    thanks for a useful post. I’m often surprised by the problems punctuation can create.
    I agree with you that a speaker can undermine his authority by using a questioning tone, but I like to pose questions when I write because I think it helps to involve the reader. What do you think? Am I wrong?

  • Hi, Lesley. You are right. Asking questions does engage your reader. You engaged me with the two questions you asked.

    My beef (objection) is question marks inserted after statements. They may work in speaking, but they don’t in writing–at least not business writing.

    Thanks for asking!


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