When asking a question you generally have to raise your voice at the end of the sentence, is it okay to stuff a question mark in order to show inflection?

A couple examples:

  • 'That really happened?'
  • 'I'm going to miss it again?'
  • 'You did that?'
  • etc...
  • Is this about the High rising terminal inflection which I used to think was Australian, but now realise is also associated with California "Valley speech"? This speech pattern makes statements sound maddeningly like questions to me - but they're not, and you just end up feeling awkward if you're suckered into actually answering. Grrrr! – FumbleFingers Jul 13 '11 at 16:34
  • Strictly (or perhaps pedantically) speaking I'd say it was intonation rather than inflection. – Brendon Jul 14 '11 at 2:41
  • @Fumble: Interesting. I hadn't made that connection, personally, and can distinguish the high rising terminal of, say, Valley speak and the implication of a ? that ends a sentence. – MrHen Jul 25 '11 at 19:45

I think you are referring to cases such as:

A: I'm so coming with you later!
B: Err... No?

In informal writing such as chat, it's perfectly acceptable, and other similar "stylistic" choices are fine.

In formal writing it should be absolutely avoided, since to express the same function there are other ways to achieve the same result in a better form.

  • Though I can't imagine how you might accidentally use it in formal writing. – Daniel Jul 13 '11 at 15:46
  • You misunderstood, I guess. :) I said you can't, and instead other choices should be made... Instead of "Err... No?" you could say "I don't think it's a good idea." – Alenanno Jul 13 '11 at 15:47
  • No, I knew what you meant. I was remarking: how can you help but avoid using it in formal writing? Who would accidentally use it there? – Daniel Jul 13 '11 at 15:49
  • I know it seems kind of obvious, and it is indeed, I just wanted to remark it. Plus consider that it might not be obvious to everyone, because not everyone has the same amount of knowledge. It won't hurt to say it clearly, I think. – Alenanno Jul 13 '11 at 15:52
  • You're perfectly right. Sorry for being so confusing! – Daniel Jul 13 '11 at 15:53

All three of your examples are questions; they're just not worded precisely as such.

There is no problem at all in doing that (everyone does it, so it's good English), as long as the reader understands that the person speaking was asking a question -- so putting an interrogative point at the end clarifies that the person is asking for a reply, not simply making an exclamation.


I agree with what others have said about using the question mark to mark questions.

One aspect of the prosody of a query is whether or not it is a yes/no question.

Considering your examples:

'That really happened?' 'I'm going to miss it again?' 'You did that?'

These are are questions that may be answered "yes" or "no," and therefore have a rising inflection.

So would questions like:

Are you seriously considering that job? Do you want fries with that? Does this make me look fat?

(Word to the wise: never answer the last question with a "yes.")

Questions like:

What is your quest? What is your favorite color? What time is it? What is your name?

must end in a falling tone, or they will sound unnatural. (First two questions in this last list... see What's the connection between "Holy Grail" and "Killer Rabbit"?, if you dare.)

  • +1 for pointing out that the rising inflection usually (but by no means always) applies to a question admitting of a yes/no answer. – FumbleFingers Jul 26 '11 at 2:36

If you are writing, you should not put question marks on non-questions.

However, none of your examples are non-questions. All those question marks are appropriate.

The questions themselves are fragments, or else improperly executed, but that is forgivable in speech. As long as such questions remain quotations, you shouldn't have a problem grammatically.

  • Perhaps those weren't the best examples... – whoabackoff Jul 13 '11 at 15:38

The question mark, in formal writing, is exactly that; it indicates that the previous statement was a question. It is not strictly a mark of the "high rising terminal inflection" normally used to indicate a question, and so it should not be used to indicate this in cases where the inflection of spoken word does not necessarily indicate a question. Most use of the inflection in cases other than a question came about in the past 20-30 years with the popularity of "valley girl" speech, which is a localized, however popular, form of speech, and not "standard" English.

However, there is an exception. Within quotation marks in a narrative, indicating a character's speech, it is generally acceptable to intentionally misspell, abbreviate, and "mis-punctuate" statements in order to convey the tone, accent, or cadence of a character's words if that is important to the narrative, or for comic relief. For instance, it has become acceptable to indicate slow, pointed, very clearly-enunciated speech using periods, such as (from The Host) "Who. Is. The. Seeker." In such cases, using question marks to indicate a character's speech inflection may be allowed for this illustrative purposes. If you do this, it has to be readily apparent that that's what you are trying to convey.


The original question, I believe, was in regards to the upward inflection so often misused by millennials these days. If you're writing a screenplay (for instance) and want to indicate that annoying habit, do you insert a question mark as punctuation, as in "The quick brown fox? jumps? over the lazy dog?.". That example contains three upward inflections that should not be used at all, but have been marked so the actor would read it using that upward inflection affliction.

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