Punctuation: Do rhetorical quasi-questions (my term) get a question mark?

There are some sentences which are – following the letter of the law – questions. But – following the spirit of the law – they are not. Here are two examples:

“It’s a good thing Judy had her penknife with her. Who knows what we would have done without it(?)”

“The lights were already on when I arrived home. Well, what do you know(?) My wife got home thirty minutes ahead of me by riding her bike.”

Should “quasi-questions” like these end in a question mark?

What about ending a question with an odd word? An insult, for instance?

Where’s your brain, stupid?
How’s the floppy, nerd?
Or even more so, something with evident ellipses, that you don’t raise your voice at the end like a normal question?

Questions ALWAYS end with a question mark. If you don’t believe me, go ask these people.


Yes, end a rhetorical question with a question mark, in general. You are asking a question. It’s just that you are answering it yourself, implicitly.

However it is not an absolute rule to follow all questions by a question mark, as pointed out in this preferred usage by “The Writer’s Hotline Handbook”:

“An editor expects that the facts – who, what, why, when, why and where – will lead off every story, including features.”

Note: no question mark anywhere in the sentence. Strict anal grammar would have “Who? What? Why? When? Why? and Where?..”

If it looks silly, maybe it is. Or “Don’t let the grammar Nazis bite”. Communication first, rules second. Keep the priorities straight.

I want the weekday crowd to weigh in on this, so I’m giving it a bump.


Just to be very picky . . .

In the example given by partly_warmer, I think that “who, what, why, when, why and where” is not a series of questions, but a series of relative pronouns implying subordinate clauses. Hence they are not examples of questions which do not take question marks.

UDS, one can see something to your point, however that is how that particular authority chose to interpret the sentence. Having read the whole book, I haven’t actually caught them out on anything before that I absolutely disagree with. So … maybe.

I find both these sentences acceptable:

She asked the whys of it all.
She asked the whys? of it all.

If you agree, perhaps that illustrates their point better.

Well, OK something from the weekday crowd:

Communication first, rules second.
Sorry to repeat but, how could I put it better than partly_warmer?
Didn’t their post make a lot of sense, in that they said, with some excellent examples, to use question marks in general, but if they interfere with clarity, use a period.

Of course, if you have a sentence that creates a difficult decision about a question mark or not (like my previous sentence), the best thing to do might be to rewrite the sentence to force it one way or the other. Does that make sense?

And by the way, my individual humble opinion is that you second original example ‘Well, what do you know?’ should have a question mark – the goal here is to create a bit of suspense, which a period will not do as well.

For the first example I lean towards a period, as the goal of the sentence is really to express relief by the speaker. Note that changing the sentence to ‘God knows what we would have done.’ would make it very clear that a period (or perhaps exclamation point!)is appropriate, both from a strict gramamatical as well as communications point of view.

Hi partly_warmer

I think they’re relative pronouns because they qualify the word “facts”. “Who”, in this context, could not represent “Who shot JR?”, because that is a question, not a fact. It could represent “the person who shot JR”.

Leaving that aside, I would not accept

“She asked the whys? of it all.”

I would reject this partly because I think “whys” here represents “the reasons why”, but more because I would never include a question mark in a sentence; it always goes at the end (with the usual exception for reported speech, of course).

I concur wit’ UDS.

Just as the voice of unconformity:

If you are writing between quotes–that is, writing dialogue for a character in a work of fiction, as it seems you might be–I encourage you to do whatever you want. Use a period instead of a question mark if that sounds right to you. Inside quotes, you are attempting to replicate how that person talks, so use whatever tactics you can employ to help you.

Grammatically speaking, however, the yeses hold.

If you’re into slightly marginal punctuation you can always use the interrobang. I can’t get the font to work on this board so picture an exclamation point superimposed on a question mark. Here’s a website with more info.