Question Marks, Exclamation Marks, Parentheses

Question, Exclamation, Parentheses

An effective writer should be skilled in all the usual forms of punctuation (commas, periods, etc.). However, sometimes question marks, exclamation points, and parentheses can be challenging. Here are some useful ideas.

Question Marks

Question marks have a number of uses, and may appear at various places in a sentence. Following are some examples:

  • Direct question—The question mark is at the end of the sentence (e.g., What would you like for breakfast?)
  • Series of brief questions—When brief questions follow-up the main question, each short question can begin with a lowercase letter and end with a question mark (e.g., Do you eat it for breakfast? lunch? dinner?)
  • Questionable data, such as dates—The question mark is immediately after the data (e.g., Genghis Khan (1162?–1227))
  • Tag questions—When a question is tagged onto a declarative statement, the question mark is at the end of the sentence (e.g., He’s not doing very well, is he? He should change jobs, shouldn’t he?)

Indirect questions or requests. A period, rather than a question mark, is typically used after indirect questions or requests (e.g., Will you please forward my mail. I asked my friends if they had any plans.).

Embedded questions. When a question is embedded within a statement, it should end with a question mark (e.g., His question was, can we end this statement with a question mark?).

Quotes. In a typical declarative sentence containing a quote, a comma follows the final quotation mark (e.g., “I like it,” she said.). However, when a question is part of a declarative sentence, no comma follows the question mark (e.g., “Do you like it?” she asked.).

With other marks. In formal writing, it’s considered poor form to combine a question mark with other marks. However, it’s often done to communicate a complex exclamation (e.g., You did what?!).

Exclamation Marks

Exclamation marks have a number of uses, and typically appear at the end of a sentence. Following are some examples:

  • Exclamation (e.g., “Wow!”, “Boo!”)
  • Imperative (“Stop!”)
  • Astonishment or surprise (e.g., They were the footprints of a gigantic hound!)

Mid-sentence. Use of an exclamation mark in the middle of a sentence for dramatic effect, replacing a comma, is mostly obsolete.

Multiple exclamation marks. In formal writing, it’s considered poor form to use multiple exclamation marks. However, it’s often done to communicate exceptional emphasis (e.g., That’s great!!!).

With other marks. The exclamation mark may also sometimes be combined with a question mark to indicate protest or astonishment (You did what?!).

Using the exclamation mark too often is generally considered poor writing. It distracts the reader and reduces the value of the mark’s significance when really needed.

Quotation Marks

Quotation marks have a number of uses, and are placed in pairs around a word or phrase to indicate:

  • Quoted words (e.g., Use of “ain’t” is inappropriate in formal writing.)
  • Quote or direct speech (e.g., He said “Go ahead.”)
  • Title of a magazine article, a chapter in a book, a TV or radio show, etc. (e.g., “In the Beginning” was the title of the first chapter of my autobiography.)
  • Scare quotes (also called “shudder quotes” or “sneer quotes”) are used to indicate “so-called”, or a nonstandard or ironic a term, or a word is being used in a special sense (e.g., The “fresh” fish smelled a little ripe.)

Double and single quotation marks. Double quotes are used to indicate the “primary” style. If quotation marks are used inside another pair of quotation marks, single quotes are used as the “secondary” style. For example: “Didn’t he say ‘I’d like the fish’ when I asked what he wanted for his main course?” he asked his other guests. If another set of quotes is nested, double quotes are used again, and they continue to alternate as necessary (though this is rarely done).

Punctuation. All punctuation typically goes inside the quotation marks (“What?” “Egads!” “Go ahead!” he said). If the punctuation is clearly not a part of the quotation, it can be left outside (e.g., How many times have you heard a child say “But I’m not tired”?).


Parentheses are used to enclose words, phrases, or clauses (like these, for example) that explain or qualify some part of a sentence, usually the main train of thought. The words enclosed between the parentheses could be left out, and the sentence would still be grammatically correct and not lose its meaning. They’re usually marked off by round or square brackets [text (text) text].

Location and internal punctuation. When the group of words is an incomplete thought or incomplete sentence, it’s placed in the middle area of the main sentence. The first word inside the parentheses is usually lower case, and there is often no punctuation. However, if the enclosed group of words happens to be a complete thought or a complete sentence (Take note of this.), it should begin with a capital letter and appropriate middle and final punctuation.

External punctuation. When using parentheses within a sentence, be sure to keep track of the punctuation of the main sentence. Often, a comma, semicolon, period, or the like will follow immediately after the closing parenthesis (e.g., We need to order more paper (at least 3 reams), paper clips, and manila folders.).

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