The Question Mark

I know, I know. I’ve very bad at keeping this blog up-to-date. But I’m back, and with a grammar post, looking at some of the oddities of the question mark abroad, inspired by the Easter holiday.

The Greek question mark

The Greek question mark is used to indicate that a sentence is a question, the same as a regular question mark. However, the symbol used is different to the Latin question mark commonly used today (?), and instead closely resembles a semicolon (;).

The Spanish question mark (inverted question mark)

Inverted question marks have their roots in the Spanish language and are used as punctuation marks to begin inquisitive sentences that form a question. The inverted question mark (¿) is used at the start of the sentence to signify that a question follows. The punctuation mark is an inverted form of the standard question mark symbol.

The initial inverted question mark (¿) used at the start of the sentence is usually mirrored by the use of a regular question mark (?) at the end of the sentence. Unlike the regular question mark at the end of the sentence, which sits along the baseline of the sentence with the rest of the letters, the inverted question mark sits below the baseline of the sentence. The example below shows the correct usage of an inverted question mark in the Spanish language.

¿Cuántos años tienes? (“How old are you?”)

In sentences that form two clauses and form a statement before asking a question, the inverted question mark is used to isolate the clause of the sentence that forms a question. For example:

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?)

The use of an inverted question mark for short and clearly distinguishable sentences that form a question is a matter of style, with some writers omitting the inverted question mark. For example:

Quién viene? (“Who comes?”).

The Catalan language is strict in the usage of the inverted question mark and insists that both the inverted opening and the regular closing question mark are used for clarity when a sentence forms a question.

The backward question mark

The backward question mark is rarely used today, but can be used to indicate a level of irony or sarcasm within a sentence. The English language does not provide a simple way to denote a sarcastic tilt to a sentence and various attempts to introduce a symbol have been proposed over the years. In the 16th century, Henry Dunham proposed a backwards question mark as a pre-contation point to indicate that a sentence formed a rhetorical question that did not require an answer. In the 19th century an irony punctuation mark was proposed and used by Marcelin Jobard and Alcanter de Brahm as a way to indicate a second level of irony to a sentence.

Pretty good eh? Be back soon.

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