I’m getting mixed messages on which of the following punctuations is correct:

I don’t know what you want from me.

I don’t know what you want from me?

It seems to be both an indirect question, rhetorical and even a halfway actual question. Is there a generally preferred way to punctuate such a sentence?

The sentence occurs during a conversation where a man is berating his girlfriend. She is listing all these fun things they can do on their anniversary, “I can make you dinner”, “We can go skiiing”, etc. After each suggestion, however, he puts her down with statements like, “You’re not that great a cook” or “You’d probably break your leg skiing“. She gets irate and responds with the above sentence.

It’s part of a larger thread in the story showing him increasingly distancing himself from her.

  • A question mark is used to indicate that the sentence is spoken with the sort of rising tone at the end that is indicative of a question. So, how is the sentence spoken?
    – Hot Licks
    Dec 22 '16 at 19:01
  • Observe the "Related" column to the right. There are several questions that bear on this issue (though none that appear to be an exact "dupe").
    – Hot Licks
    Dec 22 '16 at 19:05
  • Thanks @HotLicks. That's where some of my confusion was. If the statement is viewed as rhetorical, answers are saying use a question mark. If it's indirect, use period. I suppose it depends on me to determine which it is.
    – HME
    Dec 22 '16 at 19:35
  • @Cascabel I'm not confused. I am a non-English major going by the definition of rhetorical. I can imagine this being rhetorical since the asker might not intend for it to be answered at all. It's a way to admonish the person you're speaking to, showing them that they are being difficult.
    – HME
    Dec 22 '16 at 19:55
  • Okay, sounds sensible.
    – HME
    Dec 22 '16 at 20:10

Your question is an indirect question in any context I can think of. As such, it takes a period. I don't believe there is ambiguity in your example. You can try different intonations, and it doesn't sound right as a direct question.

I don't know what you want from me.

The direct question form of this is: What do you want from me?

  • I'm going to mark this as the answer.
    – HME
    Dec 22 '16 at 20:11
  • Cool. Rhetorical questions fall into their own category and can take either a period or question mark depending on context and intonation: So you think I'm a freak? versus So, you think I'm a freak.
    – Stu W
    Dec 22 '16 at 21:54

I don’t know [what you want from me].

The bracketed constituent is a subordinate interrogative clause, sometimes called an embedded question, and no question mark is required.

The meaning is "I don’t know the answer to the question 'What do you want from me?"'

The main clause equivalent is "What do you want from me?" where a question mark is required.

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