It is, if you like, the written equivalent of a rising intonation which, in most languages, shows we are asking for information of someone.
When do we use Question Marks?
We use the question mark to ask for information:
Where are you from?
What time is it?
We can also use one at the end of a question tag:
You’re from Canada, aren’t you?
It’s midnight, isn’t it?
We can use a question mark to show a series of quick implied questions. For example:
Who’s going to pay? Me? You? The dog?!
Although it is very informal English writing, we can use a question mark and an exclamation mark together; usually the exclamation follows the question.
Where NOT to use a Question Mark
Remember, we do not use a question mark at the end of reported speech:
John asked Karen, “Where are you from?”
John asked Karen where she was from.
Where a Question Mark is Optional
Sometimes the use of a question mark reflects the way in which we speak. For example, we can ask a simple question of someone:
What is your name?
However, if we know for certain that the person’s name is John and we are using a question tag for confirmation only (that is, a verifying tag), we don’t necessarily include a question tag:
His name’s John, isn’t it.
This exam question is difficult, isn’t it!
Also, when we give a polite command and couch it in the form of a question, we don’t need to use a question mark:
Would you come here please.
Teaching the Question Mark in your TEFL Class
In the TEFL classroom, questions marks are not usually a problem. However, you should note that some languages use a different form of question mark. Greek, for example, uses a semi-colon to denote a question:
What time is it?
Τι ώρα είναι;
Spanish, meanwhile, uses an inverted question mark at the beginning of the sentence also:
¿Qué hora es?
Students tend to pick up on these differences easily. The one major point you should stress, however, is not using a question mark with reported speech which will catch some students out. The key, then, is using a question mark when we ask for information.
There are two main theories where the question mark comes from. One suggests it was developed by the English scholar, Alcuin of York during the latter half of the 8th century CE and meant to represent the rising intonation of a question.
Another theory suggests it comes from Latin and is a form of abbreviation for the word, quaestiō (= question) formed by a letter q over the letter o.
However neither of these theories are proven. In 2011 it was suggested that the question mark was first used in Syriac (a language spoken in the Middle East from around 4 CE – 8 CE).