Column: A Word, Please: Curious cases surrounding the question mark


Ever question the question mark? I don’t recommend it. Inquire about this quirky little squiggle and you’ll end up with more questions than answers.

Its history is a mystery. And its use, when examined closely, is downright puzzling.

Some theorize that the question mark was inspired by the tail of a cat — a sort of hovering commentary on the mysteries of feline nature. The ancient Egyptians often get credit, since they worshipped kitties to an extent the world wouldn’t see again till Grumpy Cat took the internet by storm.

Some researchers say the cat in question belonged to a monk who represented its tail at the end of questions in a manuscript.

Another theory claims scholars in the Middle Ages put the Latin word “quaestio” (question) at the end of a sentence, then abbreviated it to “qo,” then started positioning the q above the o to create something that looks like our modern-day question mark.

But the most common theory has it that an adviser to Charlemagne named Alcuin of York created the “punctus interrogativus,” which 1,000 years later became known as the question mark.

Chances are, we’ll never know where this mark came from. Chances are, too, that we’ll never fully master how to use one. Yes, I know it’s pretty easy to use a question mark in most cases. But most cases aren’t all cases.

Take the case of whether to use one with a closing quotation mark. When the stuff inside the quotation marks is a question, the question mark goes inside: They have a song titled “How Soon Is Now?”

When the quoted stuff is just part of a larger question, it goes outside: Did they play “Fly Me to the Moon”?

When you’re asking a question that contains a question, you can drop the second question mark: Did they play “How Soon Is Now?”

That’s the easy hard stuff. The hard hard stuff comes when you start asking questions like: What happens when a question that’s not in quotation marks appears in the middle of a sentence? Look at the following example from the Chicago Manual of Style.

Is it worth the risk? he wondered.

That’s correct, per Chicago, even though it seems wrong to have terminal punctuation in the middle of a sentence followed immediately by a lowercase letter.

If you opted for quotation marks in that sentence, the lowercase h would seem more natural: “Is it worth the risk?” he wondered.

But don’t stare at that too long or you’ll find yourself wondering about the rules for dropping the comma that usually comes before a quotation attribution like “he wondered.”

Wonder no more. Here’s Chicago: “When a question mark or exclamation point appears at the end of a quotation where a comma would normally appear, the comma is omitted.”

Nice and simple, or it would be if it stopped there. It doesn’t. “When, however, the title of a work ends in a question mark or exclamation point, a comma should also appear if the grammar of the sentence would normally call for one.”

Here’s an example Chicago supplies: “Are You a Doctor?,” the fifth story in the “Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?,” treats modern love.

Notice how a question mark and a comma are right next to each other, twice. That only happens when you’re dealing with the title of a work that already contains that question mark.

What if you’re asking about a title that ends in an exclamation point or you’re exclaiming about a title that ends in a question mark? Well, those are weird-looking too: Who shouted, “Long live the king!”? I just love “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”!

Here’s an easy-to-remember rule: Titles that contain question marks or exclamation points sometimes require you to double up on punctuation. But no one will blame you if your strategy for dealing with the question mark is “Don’t ask.”

June Casagrande is the author of “The Joy of Syntax: A Simple Guide to All the Grammar You Know You Should Know.” She can be reached at