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?

5 Answers 5


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.

  • 2
    +1 Indeed, "could you ..." represents a question, not a command.
    – Noldorin
    Jan 20, 2011 at 0:16
  • 6
    +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. Jan 20, 2011 at 0:28
  • 3
    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, 2011 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, 2011 at 18:00
  • 3
    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, 2011 at 10:45

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.


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


  • '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)


It's useful to have a typographical way of distinguishing two types of utterance which are otherwise graphically identical, e.g.:

Type 1: Can you raise your hand? (Inquiring about ability, perhaps a physiotherapist to a patient). Type 2: Can you raise your hand. (Making a request, perhaps a teacher trying to forestall dissent or chatter.)

Type 1: Would you pass the test? (Asking about the consequent of some condition.)
Type 2: Would you pass the test. (Actually requesting the completion of a physical action on a physical object.)

In Type 1 sentences, what the speaker wants is a verbal response; in Type 2 sentences, the speaker is asking for a non-verbal action, conformity with a rule etc. Type 1 sentences are distinguished by a rising intonation in speech, and it would be useful to have a mark to do the same in writing.

Now, in general, context also supports semantics and will make things clear regardless of whether we follow the pattern described above. Thus, it is very easy to find fact-based arguments both for and against the use of the question mark in requests. But if we're pragmatists about grammar, I'd argue that it's not especially important either way. If a sentence is clear, it's good.

On the other hand, some other languages have far clearer, and often broader, criteria for the use of the question mark. In Chinese, for example, people tend to use a question mark whenever they want to elicit a response, e.g.:

"I don't know when you'll be coming tomorrow?"

I.e. I want you to tell me when you'll be coming, and I use the mark to show this.

Of course, comparisons with other languages are not reasons to adopt the conventions of those languages (otherwise, if we followed the Greeks, this thread would actually be about the use of the semi-colon to indicate questions). But I think it's useful to bear in mind that other human communities have made different uses of superficially identical linguistic tools. Language varies across space and through time. Whatever conclusion we come to is provisional and contingent.

  • "if we're pragmatists about grammar, I'd argue that it's not especially important either way. If a sentence is clear, it's good." Yes - except that if the question mark is omitted, it may not be clear whether this was done intentionally (to indicate a Type 2 meaning and intonation) or was accidental, ignorant or lazy when Type 1 was intended. Sep 22, 2018 at 10:53

"According to my dictionary*, question is defined thus:

a sentence worded or expressed so as to elicit information

What about:

Tell me what time it is.

  • Your example is not a question but a command, similar to "Tell me who did it" and "Describe your best friend", By placing "Could/can/will/would you...?" in front the commands become requests.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Aug 17, 2014 at 4:35

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