The question mark "?" (also known as interrogation point, query, or eroteme in journalism) is a punctuation mark that indicates an interrogative 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. Truss describes the punctus interrogativus of the late 8th century as, "a lightning flash, striking from right to left". (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, and perhaps associated with early musical notation like neumes. Another possibility is that it was originally a tilde or titlo, as in " ·~ ", one of many wavy or more or less slanted marks used in medieval texts for denoting things such as abbreviations, which would later become various diacritics or ligatures. 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, punctuation was rationalized by assigning Alcuin's stroke-over-dot specifically to interrogatives; by this time the stroke was more sharply curved and can easily be recognized as the modern question mark.
It has also been suggested that the glyph derives from the Latin quaestiō meaning "question", which was abbreviated during the Middle Ages to qo. 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.
According to a 2011 discovery by Chip Coakley, a Cambridge University manuscript expert, Syriac was the first language to use a punctuation mark to indicate an interrogative sentence. The Syriac question mark, known as the "zagwa elaya" or "upper pair", has the form of a vertical double dot over a word.
In English, the question mark typically occurs at the end of a sentence, where it replaces the full stop (period). However, the question mark may also occur at the end of a clause or phrase, where it replaces the comma :
- 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." — Stanley Elkin.
This is quite common in Spanish, where the use of bracketing question marks explicitly indicates 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)
In other languages and scripts
Opening and closing question marks in Spanish
In Spanish, since the second edition of the Ortografía of the Real Academia Española in 1754, interrogatives require both opening (¿) and closing (?) question marks. 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?"'
- Gengis Khan (¿1162?–1227) is preferred in Spanish over Gengis Khan (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?!'
- ¡¿Quién te has creído que eres?!
The opening question mark in Unicode is U+00BF ¿ INVERTED QUESTION MARK (HTML
In other languages of Spain
Armenian question mark
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, romanized: erōtīmatikó) looks like ";". It appeared around the same time as the Latin one, in the 8th century. 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 as equivalent to U+003B ; SEMICOLON, making the marks identical in practice. In Greek, the question mark is used even for indirect questions.
Mirrored question mark in right-to-left scripts
In Arabic and other 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. In Unicode, two encodings are available: U+061F ؟ ARABIC QUESTION MARK (HTML
؟ · With bi-directional code AL: Right-to-Left Arabic) and U+2E2E ⸮ REVERSED QUESTION MARK (HTML
⸮ · With bi-directional code Other Neutrals). (Some browsers may display the character in the previous sentence as a forward question mark due to font or text directionality issues).
Fullwidth question mark in East Asian languages
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
French usage must include a narrow non-breaking space before the question mark (for example, "Que voulez-vous boire ?"), whereas in the English language orthography no space is allowed in front of the question mark (e.g. "What would you like to drink?").
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 Dunham in the 1580s and was used at the end of a rhetorical question; however, it became obsolete (its use died out) in the 17th century. 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. 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 those are even more rarely seen.
Bracketed question marks can be used for rhetorical questions, for example Oh, really(?), in informal contexts such as closed captioning. 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. It is usually put between brackets: (?). The uncertainty may concern either a superficial level (such as unsure spelling), or a deeper truth (real meaning).
In computing, the question mark character is represented by ASCII code 63 (0x3F hexadecimal), and is located at Unicode code-point U+003F ? QUESTION MARK (HTML
?). The full-width (double-byte) equivalent (？), is located at code-point U+FF1F ？ FULLWIDTH QUESTION MARK (HTML
The question mark is often utilized as a wildcard character: a symbol that can be used to substitute for any other character or characters in a string. In particular "?" is used as a substitute for any one character as opposed to the asterisk, "*", which can be used as a substitute for zero or more characters in a string. The inverted question mark (¿) corresponds to Unicode code-point U+00BF ¿ INVERTED QUESTION MARK (HTML
¿), and can be accessed from the keyboard in Microsoft Windows on the default US layout by holding down the Alt and typing either 1 6 8 (ANSI) or 0 1 9 1 (Unicode) on the numeric keypad. In GNOME applications on Linux operating systems, it can be entered by typing the hexadecimal Unicode character (minus leading zeros) while holding down both Ctrl and Shift, I J mm.e.: Ctrl Shift B F. In recent XFree86 and X.Org incarnations of the X Window System, it can be accessed as a compose sequence of two straight question marks, i.e. pressing Compose ? ? yields ¿. In classic Mac OS and Mac OS X (macOS), the key combination 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 ʔ LATIN LETTER GLOTTAL STOP (HTML
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 that 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
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 APL,
? generates random numbers or a random subset of indices. In Rust, a
? suffix on a function or method call indicates error handling.
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, usually rendered as a white question mark in a black diamond: U+FFFD � REPLACEMENT CHARACTER. 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 Office'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 search.php on the server www.example.com is to provide a response to the query string containing the pairs query=testing and database=English.
In Scrabble, a question mark indicates a blank tile.
Mathematics and formal logic
- U+225F ≟ QUESTIONED EQUAL TO
- U+2A7B ⩻ LESS-THAN WITH QUESTION MARK ABOVE
- U+2A7C ⩼ GREATER-THAN WITH QUESTION MARK ABOVE
In linear logic, the question mark denotes one of the exponential modalities that control weakening and contraction.
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").
- Truss, Lynne. Eats, Shoots & Leaves, 2003. p. 139. ISBN 978-1-86197-612-3.
- Truss, Lynn (2004). Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation. New York: Gotham Books. p. 76. ISBN 1-59240-087-6.
- Typografie.info Archived October 12, 2007, at the Wayback Machine
- Parkes, M. B. (1993). Pause and Effect: An Introduction to the History of Punctuation in the West. University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-07941-8.
- The Straight Dope on the question mark Archived July 11, 2007, at the Wayback Machine (link down)
- De Hamel, Christopher History of Illuminated Manuscripts, 1997
- Brewer, E. C. Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, 1870 (rev. 1894), s.v. 'Punctuation'.
- "Syriac double dot: World's earliest question mark". CBSNews.com. July 22, 2011. Retrieved July 28, 2011.
- Elkin, Stanley (1991). The MacGuffin. p. 173.
- Truss (2004), pp. 142–143
- Ortografía de la Lengua Castellana (in Spanish). Madrid: Real Academia Española. 1779  – via Internet Archive.
- Interrogación y exclamación (signos de). Punto 3d.
- Interrogación y exclamación (signos de). Punto 3b.
- Thompson, Edward Maunde (1912). An Introduction to Greek and Latin Palaiography. Oxford: Clarendon Press. pp. 60 ff. Retrieved December 10, 2017 – via Internet Archive.
- Nicolas, Nick (November 20, 2014). "Greek Unicode Issues: Punctuation". Thesaurus Linguae Graecae: A Digital Library of Greek Literature. University of California, Irvine. Archived from the original on January 18, 2015.". 2005. Accessed 7 October 2014.
- Truss (2004), p. 143.
- Book typography, Ari Rafaeli, 2005
- Truss (2004), p. 142.
- "Character Codes – HTML Codes, Hexadecimal Codes & HTML Names". Character-Code.com. Retrieved August 7, 2016.
- "Scrabble Glossary". Tucson Scrabble Club. Retrieved February 6, 2012.
- Lupton, Ellen; Miller, J. Abbott (2003). "Period Styles: A Punctuated History". In Peterson, Linda H. (ed.). The Norton Reader (PDF) (11th ed.). Norton. Archived from the original (PDF) on June 14, 2007. Retrieved December 10, 2017 – via Think-gn.com – online excerpt (at least – may be full text of chapter), pp. 3–7.
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