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A sentence like

Could you please pass me the pepper shaker

is not really a question. Should I use a question mark or a period to end this sentence? What about:

Could you let me know when the meeting begins
Could you tell me when the meeting begins
Could you let me know if you are attending the meeting
...

Any guidance? Is there a general rule?

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3 Answers 3

up vote 7 down vote accepted

Actually, sentences that begin with 'could', 'should', or 'would' are questions and should have a trailing question mark. Your original quote, "Could you please pass me the pepper shaker?", could be answered with a "yes" or "no." Although we usually use this syntax as a command it is not the same as the command "Pass me the pepper shaker," or "Please pass me the pepper shaker."

Etiquette tells us that it is more polite to ask for a response than it is to command a response.

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1  
+1 Indeed, "could you ..." represents a question, not a command. –  Noldorin Jan 20 '11 at 0:16
5  
+1 This question is a command in meaning (illocutionary act is Directive), but a question in form; the question mark is part of this form, so it should be used. –  Cerberus Jan 20 '11 at 0:28
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This is what I thought as well. However, I'm not sure if this is a general rule. The Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS 6.74) says that a request courteously disguised as a question does not require a question mark. As examples, it gives Will the audience please rise. and Would you kindly respond by March 1. This would indicate that while using a question mark is not wrong, it may not be required. In the first example (Will the audience please rise), I would prefer to use a period instead of a question mark. –  Tragicomic Jan 20 '11 at 6:14
1  
@Trigicomic: I was not aware of that rule. Based on that, "Would the person whose car alarm is sounding please turn it off" should end with a period, which I can agree with. How should we end the following: "Would you mind going to the store for me" ? It's not that different than "Would you mind passing me the pepper shaker". –  oosterwal Jan 20 '11 at 18:00
1  
I think it is a matter of choice. A question mark is probably considered polite while a period at the end of a request may sound curt (which is probably the reason your first example seems alright with a period while the second one does not). I notice that both of us seem more comfortable using a period at the end of these requests when we are addressing people who are unknown to us (the audience or the car-alarm guy). Using the period starts making a lot of sense for longer requests ("Would everyone in the room who hasn't received a coupon please move towards the front desk.") –  Tragicomic Jan 21 '11 at 10:45

According to my dictionary*, question is defined thus:

a sentence worded or expressed so as to elicit information

Also, one of my dictionary* definitions of could is:

a modal verb used in making polite requests

Thus, all "Could you…" sentences are really questions because

  1. They are requests, indicating something is being asked for

  2. A response or reply (verbal or not) is required of the person being asked

Examples:

  • 'Could you please pass me the salt?'
    'Sure! Here you go.'
  • 'Professor Calculus, please could you give me an extension on this assignment?'
    'I'm sorry, Isaac, but you will have to turn it in at the same time as everyone else.'
  • 'Could you hold this for a sec?' Eric asked his brother.
    (Response: Brother extends hand to hold item for Eric.)
    'Thanks, bro.'
  • 'Here's the form.'
    'Could you sign here, sir?'
    'No problem!' (Man signs in indicated box.)
    'All set. Thank you!'

Hence, you should always terminate any sentence beginning with "[Please] could you" with a question mark.


*New Oxford American Dictionary (2nd Edition)

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According to "Basicwriting" course on Coursera: https://class.coursera.org/basicwriting-002/ there should be a period instead of question mark:

Use a period to end (1) declarative sentences, which state facts and opinions; (2) imperative sentences, which give commands and directions; (3) indirect questions; and (4) polite requests that are stated as questions.

... Requests that are stated as questions: Would you please point out Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, on the map. Could you translate that sign over there for me, please.

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