December and the Question Mark

Some say the question mark was a monkish shorthand, a capital ‘Q’ on top of an ‘o’ as an abbreviation of the Latin ‘quaestio’. The question mark’s consistent use began with manuscripts produced for the court of Charlemagne in the late eighth century. Like the full stop and the exclamation, the question mark indicates the end of a sentence, and the dot included in both the exclamation and the question mark points up that function.

In best practice, it is the only punctuation mark that is permitted to come after titles and sub-headings. Full stops are not to be used after titles, and exclamation marks are only to be used after titles by the over-excited and persons in show business.

Like the full stop and the exclamation mark, the question mark is relatively easy to deploy for the very fact that it comes at the end of sentences. A rising tone tells the listener that a question is coming and writers can hear that in their mind’s ear and punctuate accordingly. That worked well until 1995. What has happened to the rising tone since then will be considered at the end of this discussion.

In the days when spouses wrote rather than talked to each other, should one of them write ‘Would you please refrain from singing in the bath’, there would have been no need for a question mark. What looks like a question is in fact a request, if not, indeed, an order. There are other circumstances in which apparent questions do not require a question mark. Oxford points to the implied questions of indirect speech as an instance.

Some question marks appear in the middle of sentences not the end. Oxford says that question marks in parentheses imply ‘a sarcasm or some other humorous effect’. The (?) can be the printed equivalent of a wink.  The mid-sentence question mark can also serve to indicate the doubtful nature of the information provided. Names, dates, numbers followed by a question mark in parenthesis are called into question. ‘The capital of Alaska, Anchorage (?), is where you will find her.’ A similar question mark is used to indicate that the information provided cannot yet be completed: Christopher Mulvey (1941-20??).

Technically, the question mark used to indicate uncertainty is called the query. A name that specifies the question mark at the end of a sentence is ‘eroteme’, from the Greek ‘erotema’, to question. However, ‘eroteme’, though used in nineteenth-century grammars, is a word so rare that it is not included in the Oxford English Dictionary. A more commonplace word for the question mark is ‘hook’.

‘Hook’ is the term used by software programmers who use the question mark a lot. In computing, a question mark, Humpty-Dumpty-like, means just what the language-writer chooses it to mean. In the language called LEONARDO,’?’ means PRINT. When the question mark appears at the beginning of a program line, what follows will be printed. However, the LEONARDO question mark has only its shape in common with the query or eroteme.

The area where the computing question mark comes closer to the punctuational question mark is Unicode. Unicode, the international computing code, allows for twenty-four different kinds of question mark or hook. The list begins with the Question Mark and ends with the Fullwidth Question Mark. In between are such types as the Modifier Letter Rhotic Hook and the Latin Letter Glottal Stop With Stroke.

The twenty-four kinds reshape the question mark in a variety of ways, inverting it, reversing it, raising it, lowering it, shrinking it, expanding it, combining it, embellishing it. These varieties are not a matter of font changes; they produce twenty-four separate signs meaning twenty-four different things.

If the first of the Unicode question marks is the question mark as we know it, ‘?’, the Fullwidth Question Mark, ‘?’, is a broader version used in Chinese and Japanese. The Modifier Letter Rhotic Hook, ‘˞’ is question-mark squiggle added to a letter in the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). It indicates rhoticity as in the sounding of the ‘r’ in ‘hard’ or ‘farm’ in the Dorset accent. The Latin Letter Glottal Stop With Stroke,  ‘ʡ’, another IPA sign, represents a complete sound: the voiced epiglottal stop.  (Google the name and you can hear it on the web. The Unicode signs may not show correctly if you are reading this on the web. To view them, Google them.)

Twentieth-century phoneticians and programmers were attracted to the question mark because, of all the punctuation marks, its shape is best adapted to reshaping. Phoneticians and programmers were not the first re-shapers. As early as the 1580s, Henry Denham, a London printer, was suggesting that the regular question mark did not sit well with rhetorical questions. They were not, he felt, interrogations; they were, he argued, percontations.

A percontation is a question that cannot be answered with a ‘Yes’ or a ‘No’. Denham recommended that in place of a left-facing question mark, percontations should use a right-facing one: ⸮. The recommendation was not greeted with enthusiasm. The percontation mark died out. However, Denham might be pleased to know that his mark has been revived as Unicode U+2E2E with the comment ‘punctus percontativus’. It has found a home in Arabic script since that moves from right to left.

As the reversed question mark was dying out in England, an inverted question mark was coming to life in Spain. Like a number of languages, Spanish puts question marks at the beginning as well as the end of the question. It does the same with the exclamation, but in both cases, it inverts the mark at the beginning. It brackets the question with these marks: ¿?. It brackets an exclamation with these: ¡!. English brackets with quotation mark, and English, like Spanish, inverts the opening mark.

Neither the inverted question mark nor the reversed question mark has been used for the punctuation of English, but lurking about is another reshaped question mark. In The King’s English, Henry Fowler puzzled over: ‘Fortunate man! – who would not envy you!’. He noted that such an outburst was as much question as exclamation. What was to be done? There was no solution in 1906. But one was offered in 1962.

Martin K. Speckter, a New York advertiser and amateur typographer, became annoyed that in many advertisements a sentence like ‘Fortunate man! – who would not envy you!’ became ‘Fortunate man! – who would not envy you?!’. Double punctuation had never been an option until the 1950s, and Speckter thought things should remain that way. His answer was to combine the question and exclamation marks to make something for which he offered the names ‘exclamaquest’ and ‘interrobang’ - ‽. The name ‘interrobang’ stuck, and it has received its own Unicode designation (U+2013D), but the interrobang appears to be going the way of the percontation mark. They appear in articles about unusual typography but not in everyday prose.

Of Unicode’s twenty-four question marks, we have to do in the everyday world with but one of them, the everyday question mark. Generally, it is untroublesome. Unlike the apostrophe, the question signals something heard. People raise their voices at the end of sentences, and this is such a strong indicator of interrogation that it can, on its own, change a statement into a question.

Question marks mark questions, and questions are sounded, we like to think, by a rising terminal tone. Once upon a time when you heard a rising terminal, you knew that a question was being asked. That is not the case today. A linguistic phenomenon called the high rising terminal does not signify a question. Other names for the high rising terminal are upspeak, uptalk, rising inflection, and ADD.

ADD stands for Australian Dialect Disease, and Australian soap operas have been blamed for spreading an infection. Neighbours and Home and Away are fertile breeding grounds for ADD, but ADD has infected American English as much as British English, and, anyway, Australians say they caught the disease from New Zealanders.


December’s entry completes the English Project Year of Punctuation, inspired its being 500 years since the death of Aldus Pius Manutius, the great punctuator. In January, the English Project will cap the year’s work with ‘A Brief History of English Punctuation’.

For the bibliography and for the punctuation marks of the previous months, click here.


On 23 April 1616, William Shakespeare died. The language of Shakespeare will be the English Project theme for 2016.