A Very Questionable Mark

Ever question the question mark? I don’t recommend it. Inquire about this quirky little squiggle and you’ll end up with more questions than answers.

Its history is a mystery. And its use can be downright puzzling.

Some theorize that the question mark was inspired by the tail of a cat — a sort of hovering commentary on the mysteries of feline nature. The ancient Egyptians often get credit, since they worshipped kitties to an extent the world wouldn’t see again till Grumpy Cat took the internet by storm.

Some researchers say the cat in question belonged to a monk who represented its tail at the end of questions in a manuscript.

Another theory claims scholars in the Middle Ages put the Latin word “quaestio” (question) at the end of a sentence, then abbreviated it to “qo,” then started positioning the q above the o to create something that looks like our modern-day question mark.

But the most common theory has it that an adviser to Charlemagne named Alcuin of York created the “punctus interrogativus,” which 1,000 years later became known as the question mark.

Chances are, we’ll never know where this mark came from. Chances are, too, that we’ll never fully master how to use one. Yes, I know it’s pretty easy to use a question mark in most cases. But most cases aren’t all cases. In my recent column, I look at where to place question marks relative to quotation marks, when they can be used in the middle of a sentence and the rare cases when a question mark is immediately followed by a comma.

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