*Should You Put a Question Mark After "Who Knows"? Who Knows?*

Not long ago, Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez spent the night in a tent in front of City Hall to get the pulse of the local incarnation of the Occupy Wall Street protests.

He learned a lot, he said, but the experience still left some questions unanswered: “Will it grow into a cohesive movement? Who knows.”

I don’t know, either. But what I do know is that I stopped reading there. The period after “knows” got my attention. Lopez or his editors could have just as logically opted for a question mark. Yet the period won them over.

“Who knows” is a question, not a statement. So why no question mark?

There are two ways to look at this, both acceptable in professional publishing.

One way, as stated above, is summed up thusly: A question is a question is a question, and it takes a question mark. The other way to look at it is: Lopez wasn’t really asking. Thus, you could argue, it was a rhetorical question.  And since he wasn’t asking anything, the question mark isn’t necessary.

Both interpretations are fine. But, personally, I prefer the former.  A sentence structured as an interrogative – even if it doesn’t seek an answer -- has a different quality than does a declarative. Instead of “who knows,” Lopez could have said “no one knows” or “I doubt anyone knows,” both of which are structured as declaratives. But his choice of “who knows” conveys something different – a mystery, a riddle, a thing to be pondered. In other words, it has a questioning quality. And, after all, structurally it is a question.

Another question that’s often meant as a statement: “Why not?” I often see this written “Why not.” And why not? The writer isn't really seeking an answer, right? Well, I wasn’t seeking an answer to that “right,” either. Yet that clearly requires the question mark.

In fiction, many questions meant as statements end in periods.

Bad guy: “Get in the car.”

Hero: “And if I don’t.”

Bartender: “Here’s your drink, sir.”

Customer: “You call this a martini.”

Neither the Chicago Manual of Style nor the AP Stylebook addresses this matter directly.  But Chicago includes an interesting note about “courtesy questions.” “A request courteously disguised as a question does not require a question mark.” An example: “Will the audience please rise.”

But the wording “does not require a question mark” suggests that the question mark may nonetheless apply.

Me, I’d put a question mark after all those – the hero’s, the customer’s, the request to rise, and even “who knows?”

But you don’t have to do it my way. Whenever you’re certain the question seeks no answer, you can choose for yourself. The question mark suggests that, if the sentence were spoken the speaker's voice would lilt up at some point to intone a question. The period suggest a flatter sound, which can help a fiction writer keep their tough guys from sounding like Valley girls.

Whatever you do, watch out for “Guess what.” This is not a question. It’s a command -- an imperative. And a question mark after “guess what” makes no sense at all.

I can only think of one example of a rhetorical question that I would not end with a question mark. It comes from an old Simpsons episode in which Homer is trying to guess how many roads a man must walk down before you can call him a man. “Seven!” he guesses.

Lisa: “No, Dad. It’s a rhetorical question.”

Homer, thinks about it a moment, then blurts out, “Eight!”

Lisa: “Dad, do you even know what rhetorical means?”

Homer: “Do I know what rhetorical means!”


5 Responses to “*Should You Put a Question Mark After "Who Knows"? Who Knows?*”

  1. I believe you already addressed proper positioning of question marks and quotes. If I'm right, please point me to the article where you clarify when the question mark should be inside the quotes and when it should fall outside the quotes as it does in the title of this post. Thanks.

  2. Ooh! This was fascinating! The "Guess what?" thing always bothered me, but I hadn't really thought about the opposite. I appreciate you acknowledging the style aspect of to question mark or not to question mark, but I agree that seeing that "who" or "what" or "where" at the beginning of a sentence preps the reader for a question mark at the end, and it's nice to reward them instead of making them re-read.

    By the way, is this your first Simpsons reference on this site? Took you long enough! 😉 (Unless my sieve of a brain missed the others.)

  3. Perhaps it's a regionalism, but I grew up in New York City, and I would not label a terminal "who knows" as a question (real or rhetorical) of any sort. The words are not spoken with the inflection of a question, and they are usually accompanied by a slight shrug of one shoulder or tilt of one hand. They are sometimes followed by a slight sneer or a half-puff of air coming from one side of the speaker's mouth. Expressions of exasperation and admissions of doubt that the future will bring the desired tidings don't need question marks.

  4. Thanks for the tip, Brian!Couple tighns:First, I have to admit ignorance and ask about your line, "…the question mark must all fall inside the quote marks…" What does "all fall" mean? Was that supposed to be "always"?Second, I think there’s an exception to the rule. If a character is asking a question about another character’s statement, the mark should go outside the interior quote and inside the exterior quotes, logically speaking. Example:Cliff snorted, "I am not interested in your twits.""Did you just say ‘twits’?" asked Jonathon.Thanks again and keep up the great advice!Best,Mike

  5. A rhetorical question is still a question, and thus must be punctuated with a question mark. Whether or not an answer is expected to a question does not determine whether or not it is a question. There is a huge clue in the name. " rhetorical QUESTION ."