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Question mark

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Question mark

Question mark

The question mark ( ? ), also known as the interrogation point, query, and eroteme,[1] is a punctuation mark that indicates an interrogative sentence, clause, or phrase in many languages. The question mark is not used for indirect questions. The question mark glyph is also often used in place of missing or unknown data. In Unicode, it is encoded at U+003F ? question mark (HTML: ?).


Lynne Truss attributes an early form of the modern question mark in western language to Alcuin of York.[2] Truss describes the punctus interrogativus of the late 8th century as "a lightning flash, striking from right to left".[3] (The punctuation system of Aelius Donatus, current through the Early Middle Ages, used only simple dots at various heights.)

This earliest question mark was a decoration of one of these dots, with the "lightning flash" perhaps meant to denote intonation (or a tilde or titlo, named after the Latin word titulus, as in " ·~ ", like those wavy and more or less slanted marks used in lots of medieval texts for denoting various things such as abbreviations, and that would become later various diacritics or ligatures or modified letters used in the Latin script), and perhaps associated with early musical notation like neumes.[4][5] Over the next three centuries this pitch-defining element (if it ever existed) seems to have been forgotten, so that the Alcuinesque stroke-over-dot sign (with the stroke sometimes slightly curved) is often seen indifferently at the end of clauses, whether they embody a question or not.

In the early 13th century, when the growth of communities of scholars (universities) in Paris and other major cities led to an expansion and streamlining of the book-production trade,[6] punctuation was rationalised by assigning Alcuin's stroke-over-dot specifically to interrogatives; by this time the stroke was more sharply curved and can easily be recognised as the modern question-mark.

It has also been suggested that the glyph derives from the Latin quaestiō (that is, qvaestio), meaning "question", which was abbreviated during the Middle Ages to qo.[7] The lowercase q was written above the lowercase o, and this mark was transformed into the modern symbol. However, evidence of the actual use of the Q-over-o notation in medieval manuscripts is lacking; if anything, medieval forms of the upper component seem to be evolving towards the q-shape rather than away from it.

One possible origin of the question mark from Latin.

According to a 2011 discovery by a Cambridge manuscript expert, Syriac was the first language to use a punctuation mark to indicate an interrogative sentence. The Syriac question mark has the form of a vertical double dot.[8]


In English, the question mark typically occurs at the end of a sentence, where it replaces the full stop (period). However, it may also occur at the end of a clause or phrase, where it replaces the comma:[9]

Is it good in form? style? meaning?


'Showing off for him, for all of them, not out of hubris—hubris? him? what did he have to be hubrid about?—but from mood and nervousness.'[10]

This is quite common in Spanish, where the use of bracketing question marks explicitly marks the scope of interrogation.

En el caso de que no puedas ir con ellos, ¿quieres ir con nosotros? (In case you cannot go with them, would you like to go with us?)

A question mark may also appear immediately after questionable data, such as dates:

Genghis Khan (1162?–1227)

However, interrogative requests typically use a full stop (period) rather than a question mark:

Will you please forward my mail.

In other languages and scripts

Opening and closing question marks

Opening and closing question marks

In Spanish, since the second edition of the Ortografía of the Royal Academy in 1754, interrogatives require both opening and closing question marks.[11][12] An interrogative sentence, clause, or phrase begins with an inverted question mark ¿ and ends with the question mark ?, as in:

Ella me pregunta «¿qué hora es?» – She asks me, "What time is it?"[13]

Question marks must always be matched, but to mark uncertainty rather than actual interrogation omitting the opening one is allowed, although discouraged:[14]

Gengis Kan (¿1162?–1227) better than Gengis Kan (1162?–1227)

The omission of the opening mark is common in informal writing, but is considered an error. The one exception is when the question mark is matched with an exclamation mark, as in:

¡Quién te has creído que eres? – Who do you think you are?!

(The order may also be reversed, opening with a question mark and closing with an exclamation mark.) Nonetheless, even here the Academy recommends matching punctuation:[15]

¡¿Quién te has creído que eres?!

Other languages of Spain, such as Catalan, also use the inverted opening question mark, though usually only in long sentences or in cases which would otherwise be ambiguous. In Galician, only one question mark is used.

Armenian question mark

Question mark in Armenian

In Armenian the question mark ( ՞ ) takes the form of an open circle and is placed over the last vowel of the question word. It is defined in Unicode at U+055E ՞ armenian question mark.

Greek question mark

The Greek question mark (Greek: ερωτηματικό, erōtīmatikó) appeared around the same time as the Latin one, the 8th century.[16] It was adopted by Church Slavonic and eventually settled on a form essentially similar to the Latin semicolon. In Unicode, it is separately encoded as U+037E ; greek question mark, but the similarity is so great that the code point canonically decomposes to U+003B ; semicolon making the marks identical in practice.[17]

Mirrored question mark

Mirrored question mark in Arabic and Persian

In Arabic and languages that use Arabic script such as Persian and Urdu, which are written from right to left, the question mark ؟ is mirrored right-to-left from the English question mark. (Some browsers may display the character in the previous sentence as a forward question mark due to font or text directionality issues).

In Unicode, two encodings are available: U+061F ؟ arabic question mark (HTML: ؟ With Bidi code AL: Right-to-Left Arabic) and U+2E2E reversed question mark (HTML: With bi-directional code Other Neutrals).

Hebrew and Yiddish are also written right-to-left, but they use a question mark that appears on the page in the same orientation as the Roman-alphabet question mark.[18]

Fullwidth question mark

The question mark is also used in modern writing in Chinese, and Japanese, although it is not strictly necessary in either. Usually it is written as fullwidth form in Chinese and Japanese, in Unicode: U+FF1F fullwidth question mark (HTML: ).

In other scripts

Some other scripts have a specific question mark:

Stylistic variants

French usage must include a non-breaking space before the question mark (for example, "Que voulez-vous boire ?"),[19] whereas in the English language orthography no space is allowed in front of the question mark (e.g. "What do you drink?"), see also: Plenken.

In typography, some stylistic variants and combinations are available:

  • U+2047 double question mark (HTML: )
  • U+FE56 small question mark (HTML: )
  • U+2048 question exclamation mark (HTML: )
  • U+2049 exclamation question mark (HTML: )
  • U+203D interrobang (HTML: )

Rhetorical question mark

The rhetorical question mark or percontation point was invented by Henry Denham in the 1580s and was used at the end of a rhetorical question; however, its use died out in the 17th century. It was later revived in modern day society by Matt DiRoberto. It was the reverse of an ordinary question mark, so that instead of the main opening pointing back into the sentence, it opened away from it.[20] This character can be represented using the reversed question mark () found in Unicode as U+2E2E. The percontation point is analogous to the Irony mark, but these are very rarely seen.

Bracketed question marks can be used for rhetorical questions, for example "Oh, really(?)", in informal contexts such as 888 subtitles. For an ironic or sarcastic statement, a bracketed exclamation mark may be used: "Oh, really(!)".

The question mark can also be used as a meta-sign to signal uncertainty regarding what precedes. It is usually put between brackets (?). The uncertainty may concern either a superficial (such as unsure spelling) or a deeper truth (real meaning) level.


In computing, the question mark character is represented by ASCII code 63 (0x3F hexadecimal), and is located at Unicode code-point U+003F. The full-width (double-byte) equivalent, , is located at Unicode code point U+FF1F.

The question mark is often utilized as a X Window System, it can be accessed as a compose sequence of two straight question marks, i.e. pressing ? ? yields ¿. In the Mac OS, option+shift+? produces an inverted question mark.

The question mark is used in ASCII renderings of the International Phonetic Alphabet, such as SAMPA in place of the glottal stop symbol, ʔ, (which resembles "?" without the dot), and corresponds to Unicode code point U+0294, Latin letter glottal stop.

In computer programming, the symbol "?" has a special meaning in many programming languages. In C-descended languages, "?" is part of the ?: operator, which is used to evaluate simple boolean conditions. In C# 2.0, the "?" modifier is used to handle nullable data types and "??" is the null coalescing operator. In the POSIX syntax for regular expressions, such as the one used in Perl and Python, ? stands for "zero or one instance of the previous subexpression", i.e. an optional element. In certain implementations of the BASIC programming language, the "?" character may be used as a shorthand for the "print" function; in others (notably the BBC BASIC family), "?" is used to address a single-byte memory location. In OCaml, the question mark precedes the label for an optional parameter. In Scheme, as a convention, symbol names ending in ? are used for predicates such as odd?, null?, and eq?. Similarly, in Ruby, method names ending in ? are used for predicates. In Swift, a type followed by "?" denotes an option type; "?" is also used in "optional chaining", where if an option value is nil, it ignores the following operations.

In many web browsers and other computer programs, when converting text between encodings, it may not be possible to map some characters into the target character set. In this situation it is common to replace each unmappable character with a question mark “?”, inverted question mark “¿”, or the Unicode replacement character “�” (U+FFFD, usually rendered as a white question mark in a black diamond). This commonly occurs for apostrophes and quotation marks when they are written with software that uses its own proprietary non-standard code for these characters, such as Microsoft's Smart Quotes.

The generic URL syntax allows for a query string to be appended to a resource location in a web address so that additional information can be passed to a script; the query mark, ?, is used to indicate the start of a query string. A query string is usually made up of a number of different field/value pairs, each separated by the ampersand symbol, &, as seen in this URL:

Here, a script on the page login.php on the server is to provide a response to the query string containing the pairs "username"-"test" and "password"-"blank".


In algebraic chess notation, "?" denotes a bad move, and "??" a blunder, "?!" a dubious move and "!?" an interesting move. For details of all of the chess punctuation see punctuation (chess).

In Scrabble, a question mark indicates a blank tile.[21]


In mathematics, "?" commonly denotes Minkowski's question mark function. In equations, it can mean "questioned" as opposed to "defined".

  • U+225F questioned equal to
  • U+2A7B less-than with question mark above
  • U+2A7C greater-than with question mark above


A question mark is used in English medical notes to suggest a possible diagnosis. It facilitates the recording of a doctor's impressions regarding a patient's symptoms and signs. For example, for a patient presenting with left lower abdominal pain, a differential diagnosis might include ?Diverticulitis (read as 'Query Diverticulitis').

See also


  1. ^ In journalism. See Truss, Lynne. Eats, Shoots & Leaves, 2003. p. 139. ISBN 1-59240-087-6.
  2. ^ Lynne Truss. Eats, Shoots & Leaves, 2003. p. 76. ISBN 1-59240-087-6.
  3. ^
  4. ^ M. B. Parkes, Pause and effect: punctuation in the west, ISBN 0-520-07941-8.
  5. ^ The Straight Dope on the question mark (link down)
  6. ^ De Hamel, Christopher History of Illuminated Manuscripts, 1997
  7. ^ Brewer, E. C. Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, 1870 (rev. 1894), s.v. 'Punctuation'.
  8. ^ "Syriac double dot: World's earliest question mark". CBS News. 22 July 2011. Retrieved 28 July 2011. 
  9. ^ See also question comma.
  10. ^ Stanley Elkin, 1991, The MacGuffin, p. 173
  11. ^ Truss, Lynn (2004). Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation. New York: Gotham Books. pp. 142–143.  
  12. ^ Real Academia Española, ed. (1754). Ortografía de la Lengua Castellana. 
  13. ^ Upside Down Exclamation Point
  14. ^ Interrogación y exclamación (signos de). Punto 3d.
  15. ^ Interrogación y exclamación (signos de). Punto 3b.
  16. ^ Thompson, Edward Maunde. An Introduction to Greek and Latin Palaiography, pp. 60 f. Clarendon Press (Oxford), 1912.
  17. ^ Nicolas, Nick. "Greek Unicode Issues: Punctuation". 2005. Accessed 7 Oct 2014.
  18. ^ Truss, Lynne. Eats, Shoots & Leaves, 2003. p. 143. ISBN 1-59240-087-6.
  19. ^ Book typography, Ari Rafaeli, 2005
  20. ^ Truss, Lynne. Eats, Shoots & Leaves, 2003. p. 142. ISBN 1-59240-087-6.
  21. ^ "Scrabble Glossary". Tucson Scrabble Club. Retrieved 2012-02-06. 


  • Lupton, Ellen and Miller, J. Abbott, "Period styles: a punctuated history", in The Norton Reader 11th edition, ed. Linda H. Peterson, Norton, 2003 Online excerpt (at least)
  • Parkes, M.B., Pause and Effect: an Introduction to the History of Punctuation in the West, University of California Press, 1993
  • Truss, Lynne, Eats, Shoots & Leaves Gotham Books, NY, p. 139

External links

  • The question mark and indirect questions
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