When is a Question Not a Question?

QuestionIn the past year, I have been blogging about American grammar, among other topics, and today’s lesson comes from having read hundreds of others’ blogs during that time, especially the headlines.


Many times, I have seen words with a question mark after a group of words that are not an actual question. 

I think one of the issues some writers have is using the words like  “question,” “why,” or “how” in a sentence that is just a declarative sentence — a statement of fact — not a question.

The first point is what I see the most here on LI; the other two are meant as guides for those who might want or need to know.

1.  At the end of an indirect question, a group of words that talk about a question but are not themselves asking one.

Examples of indirect questions
A.  The question is how can we best answer our clients’ needs.
B.  Why Susan Smith decided to play soccer is still a mystery.

Now, those two could be rewritten to be real questions, if that’s what the author really intends.

Examples of real questions
A.  How can we best answer our clients’ needs?
B.  Why did Susan Smith decide to play soccer?

2.  Addressing words to a subordinate who will be expected to comply. The words may look like those in a typical question, but there is no expectation that the person being addressed will ever say no. You expect to  hear “of course” or something similar.

A.  John, will you please have the reports ready by 9 a.m.
B.  Will you have your boss call me, please.

These could also be rewritten as simple statements, which would be an even better solution.
A.  John, please have the reports ready by 9 a.m.
B.  Please have your boss call me.

They can also be rewritten as simple questions.
 A.  John, will you be able (can you) have the reports ready by 9 a.m.?
 B.  Will you ask your boss to call me, please?

3. At the end of a polite request or command. These are tricky statements, which could easily be seen as questions. But there is little likelihood that we are opening the issue for discussion, so we end it with a period, not a question mark.

A.  May I suggest you ask our advertising department for help.
B.  If you’re having trouble with your computer, would you please
talk to one of our IT specialists.

C.  If you will miss the meeting, will you please send someone to take your place.

We writers have a large burden of clarity to bear. We need to take a few moments and figure out what we’re writing, how we’re writing, and what the most likely result will be.

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