The End of the Road
Let's begin at the end — of sentences, that is. Three marks signal that a sentence is over: a period, a question mark, and an exclamation point.
Points About Periods
A period is most often used to signal the end of sentence that states a fact or one that gives a command or makes a request. For example:
The majority of the viewers stopped watching the program after the format was changed.
Hand me the pen that rolled near you.
If a sentence reports a fact that contains a question, a period should be used at the end. Look at this sentence:
I wondered if you could join me tonight for a night on the town.
The end punctuation should be a period because the sentence as a whole states a fact (that I'm wondering something) rather than asks a question. Periods are also used in abbreviations, such as Dr., Ms., Rev., i.e., and et al.
If your declarative or imperative sentence ends with an abbreviation that takes a period, don't put an additional period at the end. Write:
I'll be at your apartment to pick you up at 8 P.M.
I'll be at your apartment to pick you up at 8 P.M..
Answering Your Questions About Question Marks
News flash: Question marks go at the end of direct questions and sentences that end in questions. But you knew that, didn't you? Couldn't that information have been left out? You get the picture, don't you? Surely the point has sunk in by now, hasn't it?
A question mark is also used to show that there's doubt or uncertainty about something written in a sentence, such as a name, a date, or a word. In birth and death dates, such as (?–1565), the question mark means the birth date hasn't been verified. Look at this example:
The police are searching for Richard-O (?) in connection with the crime.
Here, the question mark means that the author is uncertain about the person's name. But look at this example:
Paul said he would donate five thousand dollars (?) to the charity.
The question mark means that the author is unsure about the exact amount of the donation.
Watch to see if a question mark is part of a title. If it is, be sure to include it in any punctuation that goes with the title:
I won't watch that new television program Can You Believe It?
Remember question marks go inside quotation marks if the quoted material forms a question. Otherwise, question marks go outside quotation marks. Notice the difference in these examples:
Brendan asked, “Where in the world are those reports?”
Did Brendan say, “I thought I gave you the reports”?
If you have a series of questions that aren't complete sentences, a question mark should be included after each fragment:
Can you believe that it's ten below zero? or that it's snowing? or that my electricity has gone off? or that the telephone has gone out?
They're Here! Exclamation Points
Another news flash: Exclamation points (exclamation marks) are used to express strong feelings! There's quite a difference between these two sentences:
Out of the blue, Marsha called Morris last night.
Out of the blue, Marsha called Morris last night!
The second sentence tells readers that there was something extraordinary about the fact that Marsha called Morris.
Only in informal writing should you use more than one question mark or exclamation mark:
Is this picture of our former roommate for real????
I can't believe that our former roommate is featured in Playboy!!!
In formal writing, don't use exclamation points (unless, of course, you're quoting a source or citing a title — or working for a tabloid magazine). In informal writing, you might include exclamation points after information that you find to be remarkable or information that you're excited about:
Paul said that he would donate five thousand dollars (!) to the charity.
Paul said that he would donate five thousand dollars to the charity!
Check to see if an exclamation point is part of a title. If it is, be sure to include it:
I won't watch that new television program I Can't Believe It!