When Is A Question Not A Question?

Woman with a question mark overhead. When does a question not need a question mark.There are times when something appears to be a question, but it really is a polite request that requires neither a question mark nor a response:
     Will you …
     May I …
     I wonder if …
     Didn’t she …

Consider how it would sound if you were to speak the following requests. You likely would not raise your pitch at the end as you do when you ask a question. You really are not asking someone to do something to which they have the option to reply yes or no; you are making a request that you expect to be met.

May I ask you to please return my call before 5 o’clock.
Will everyone without a ticket please contact the box office by Friday noon.
Could you please send me a list of your core competencies.

Here are four more examples that imply query, but as indirect questions they don’t require a question mark. Contrast them with the true question that follows each:

I wonder if she left her purse in the grocery cart.
Did she leave her purse in the grocery cart?

How about leaving 20 minutes early so I can stop at the pharmacy.
Could we leave 20 minutes early so I can stop at the pharmacy?

She did a great job, didn’t she.
Didn’t she do a great job?

Aren’t you the clever one.
Are you the clever one?

Avoid questions marks when:

  • you are making a request for which you do not expect a yes-or-no response
  • you are writing words that, if spoken, would not cause you to raise your pitch at the end

Caution: I tested each of these non-questions in Microsoft Word’s spell-check function, and the program suggested adding a question mark to every one of them. This is yet another example of why you can’t count on spell-check to ensure accuracy.

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Kathy Watson

Kathy Watson has a love/hate relationship with grammar; she loves words and the punctuation that helps them make sense, yet she hates those pesky rules. A self-proclaimed ruthless editor, she prefers standard usage guidelines of The Associated Press Stylebook. Her easy-to-use Grammar for People Who Hate Rules helps people write and speak with authority and confidence. She encourages and welcomes questions and comments. (Email)