The question mark is not, by itself, a question

When it comes to correctly using language, I’m not particularly fussy. Unless language is being used in a formal or professional setting (such as in a textbook or a business meeting), I’ll let almost anything pass without comment.

There are, however, a few things I inevitably can’t stand. One of these is the use of the question mark on its own as a question. I think I’ve successfully trained most of my friends and family not to do this, but I still encounter it in the wild sometimes.

If you’ve not seen it, here’s an example (which is not real, because I don’t want complaints, again):

Facebook question mark

Now, obviously it’s clear Padraig wants more information, but about what? The question mark is not a question. Poor Marion is now faced with a difficult choice. Does she explain the entirety of the Facebook status, ask for an actual question (which would be unnecessary if the question had been asked the first time), or ignore it?

Padraig could be asking:

  • ‘I didn’t know you had a job that required clients. What do you do?’
  • ‘But I know what you do for a job; is five clients really that busy?’
  • ‘Five clients is a lot! Why so many?’

You might think this is an absurd example, but recently I encountered a similar Facebook status where the poster mentioned they had a quantity of a popular cryptocurrency. One of the comments was simply ‘?’, to which the original poster gave a reply explaining what the cryptocurrency is. The commenter replied saying: ‘Yeah, I know, but why do you have some?’

If that’s what they wanted to ask, they should have asked it!

Thankfully, as I said, I’ve trained most of my friends and family not to do this. The best way is to just say ‘I don’t know what you’re asking’ in response until they learn — so go forth and end this menace!