Should you put a question mark after 'who knows?'

A while back, 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!”


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