Submitted by Dyske  •  November 15, 2010

Does “Who knows” need a question mark?

On the Web, the majority seems to think we need a question mark in the following context:

Q: “What is the meaning of life?”

A: “Who knows?”

I disagree. I consider “who knows” as a phrase or an expression, not a question; not even a rhetorical question. Adding a question mark sort of ruins the response especially in writing because it sets up an expectation (or subtle tension) of further response. A period, I feel, is the right choice because it’s a complete answer. In speech, we would not pronunce “Who knows” as if we are really asking a question; that is, our tone is missing the question mark. What do you think?

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That we are breaking with unnecessary rules is cause for happiness, not sadness. Rules that achieve nothing except make pedants happy and allow people to consider themselves superior to others ("educated") are best abandoned.

The purpose of language is to communicate. Therefore, clarity is the only valid reason for having a rule. I will admit that social convention dictates most of the rules I follow, since I am aware of the prejudices about this subject, but I think they are diminishing.

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Afraid I have to disagree here. "Who knows?" is rhetorical question, and when I say it out loud, my inflection rises at the end, indicative of a question (and therefore, a question mark). Otherwise, you're saying that someone named Who has the answer. And even when I answer in a different tone of voice, with a deflection at the end, to me it's still a question. In short, even rhetorical questions end with a question mark.

Consider the same phrase in Spanish: <i>¿Quién sabe?</i> – clearly a question.

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Definitely a question. I usually raise the end when saying it out loud. Plus, my allegiance to the rules would never allow me to start a sentence with a who (what, when, where, why) and NOT put a question mark at the end!

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Hi Steve,

<blockquote>Otherwise, you’re saying that someone named Who has the answer.</blockquote>

This is interesting. Doesn't "Who knows" function the same way "God knows" does? In my head, "Who knows" is a response phrase like "God knows".

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Speaking of the tone, let me provide another example that might be more relevant. How would you read this sentence? Do you really read it like a question if you were to actually say it?

"Let's not add this feature for now. Who knows if we would ever come across a situation where this feature is necessary."

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Well said, Kim.

Frank Merton states that "…breaking with unnecessary rules is cause for happiness… Rules that achieve nothing except make pedants happy and allow people to consider themselves superior to others (“educated”) are best abandoned.

Then goes onto write: "The purpose of language is to communicate. Therefore, clarity is the only valid reason for having a rule. I will admit that social convention dictates most of the rules I follow, since I am aware of the prejudices about this subject, but I think they are diminishing." These statements are almost at opposites.

The rules of grammar do achieve something, they allow for effective and clearer communication. The rules can – and are – occasionally broken for the sake of dramatic effect in writing, and bent where they need to be bent for appearances' sake, but all in all they work pretty well. Superiority and pedantics have nothing to do with it – the latter can sometimes be a good thing; would you, for example, criticise a judge whom you thought was being pedantic about the law when passing sentence on a drink–driver? Who knows?

Technically speaking, "who knows" should carry the question mark, but if you want to imply that it was uttered as a statement then your writing should reflect that. One of the curses of modern writing is the tendency to do away with vocabulary and description, narrowing everything down to one-liners and the lowest common denominator. Perhaps this offers more opportunity for the writer to flog work to teevee producers – almost as a ready made script – but it does nothing for the ordinary reader.

Oh, and in FM's statement "…but I think they are diminishing.", 'but' should be replaced by 'though'.

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What a tempting website for folks who enjoy language. Some of the comments are spot on, whereas some of them are just spotty. Which commentators really and truly know the answer? Who knows. Who knows? I know. Then again, who knows who knows. Reality check please! There IS a definitive answer to this perennially entertaining though ultimately banal question. And the answer is:

It depends.

Sorry if that isn't satisfying enough to those who wish to employ "rules of English" as if English were math. But English ain't math. That's right. It AIN'T. Language, especially English, be it spoken or written, is all about nuance and intent. What intent? The intent that the communicator/writer intends. As to whether or not the communicator succeeds at communicating the intent effectively, that would depend upon two dynamic variables: The communicator and the audience.

If one wants to use the sentence "Who knows (?, ., !), then one had better know one's intent.

Think. Exactly what do you intend? "Who knows?" implies that someone may or may not have some sort of literal answer.

"Who knows." implies something rhetorically suggestive (which, yes indeed, is more like a CLAIM than anything else) and certainly DOES NOT imply that a question is literally being posed. And if one were to stick a question mark at the end of THAT, it would only serve to muddle the intent.

And, sorry, what Mrs. Shlonkenheimer told us when we were in the third-grade wasn't necessarily the whole story. Hey, SUCH IS THE AMBIGUITY OF LANGUAGE. Get used to it. (Yes, the caps are unattractive, but in lieu of italics...)

Whereas "Who knows!" implies that someone named "Who" knows something, and that the people who need to know what Who knows are either hearing impaired, having a noisy party, or standing a long way away. Whatever.

As for our sing-song vocal inflections? It all depends upon the meaning of what is being conveyed. Once more with feeling, that is entirely a function of intent. And anecdotal reports as to whether or not one's inflections drop or rise at the end of any given sentence that happens to begin with or in some way include a seemingly interrogative word such as "who" (or whatever) do not in themselves cut the mustard. Though, yes, if one is unsure of the intent of a sentence, it could be helpful to think of the sentence in terms of spoken inflection. But the drop-rise factor functions only as a less than definitive hint.

Just don't leave out context related considerations. Because the context is what's really going to allow you to accurately infer and comprehend the intent.

And if you yourself are the one responsible for writing the sentence, and you do not understand your OWN intent...eesh. You're in trouble. Please visit your local smartstore and get yourself an economy-sized bucket of INTENT, as that is what you are apparently in dire need of.

As for any intentionally limited and inherently repressive SPECIALIZED form of English (pseudo-English, quasi-English, semi-English) one might naively and earnestly refer to as "business English"? If all you want to do is write inter-office memos while remaining as generic and innocuous as possible, sure, just follow the paint-by-number rules. Remain invisible. Or possibly increase your chances of getting a promotion.

But seriously, just how much does the group of people sometimes referred to as the "business community" actually know about English? Or about language in general? Answer: Notoriously very little. That is, unless the business community in question happens to consist of exceedingly scholarly individuals who have put a lot of sincere effort into learning about English and language in general. Could that be the publishing biz? Maybe decades ago. But not lately. Nowadays those emperors tend to stroll about without a lot of clothing, just like almost everyone else. So, not surprisingly, hardly anyone notices the increasing nakedness.

This distinctively modern phenomenon is largely attributable to spell-checkers, auto-spell-checkers, and all other computer-powered crutches, aids, and cookie-cutter enhancements that allow people to delude themselves into believing that they're smarter, more sophisticated, and more talented than they actually are. Oh yes, and it's also attributable to privilege, cronyism and good old-fashioned nepotism. Ha ha! Come on, have a sense of humor. It's funny cuz it's true. And never be afraid to enlarge your vocabulary.

Okay, now let's use our imaginations to draw a Venn diagram that employs two circles. One circle contains the group of people who have chosen to pursue "business," especially those vocations that people choose when they really, really want to make as much money as they can with the least amount of personal effort and, subsequently and predictably, the greatest amount of harmful exploitation and outright lies...finance, banking, BIG business, and so forth. And the other circle contains people who are authentically scholarly regarding the subject of English and language in general. Got that? Great. Now carefully try to imagine the intersection of those two circles.

Next, go to your computer's Microsoft or Apple dictionary and examine it VERY closely. Really take the time to know it. Notice anything missing? If you haven't noticed anything missing, then you're not looking hard enough. There are many things missing. Both little things and big things. Both in terms of the words themselves and, more importantly, the CONCEPTS that the words represent. But it could be no other way, be it accidentally and as a result of practical streamlining, or strictly intentionally. Our electronic helpers have a variety of peculiar biases - some obvious, some not so obvious, and some undeniably ideological. And we are all assimilating those oversimplifications and biases to some degree whether we want to or not.

But that's just what our modern world is doing to most of us, with or without any amusing conspiracy possibilities. As our standards crumble (and they are crumbling) under the weight of an increasingly simplistic and incompetent populace, one can count on our collective standard of deviation to decrease while the sharpest edge of our bell curve is dulled. The brightest outliers begin to dwindle. Less and less variation. Duller and duller. (Now THAT'S math. And I'm a wiz at math.) And that's how the process of dummying-down works in real life, just in case you've ever wondered. It's an entirely predictable and common process of domestication. And, unlike evolving a cool trunk or a set of funky wings, the subtle negative changes that relate to mental competence (and all manner of congenital behavioral disorders, autism, etc.) can easily occur over relatively short time spans. Really, just a few generations can yield quite measurable negative shifts. And we're already way beyond just a few.

And the computer is the most brilliant Skinner box ever invented. (Study behavioral psych, and any other psych by which you may be psyched...it is not just a lot of hoo-joo and baloney.) And we are the pigeons. But we don't mind being pigeons because our new toys have been carefully designed to compensate for our increasingly remedial inclinations while simultaneously lulling us into a satisfying state of unjustified confidence.

So what if most of us do not like thinking about how easy we are to manipulate. (Please note the ABSENCE of a question mark.) The EZ rule could not be simpler: The simpler we are, the easier we are to manipulate. And our machines are both allowing us and encouraging us to become simpler and simpler.

Ironically, yes, the members of the "business community" (the banking-financial-political-newz-tainment CHUM bucket) tend to be unscholarly. Very much so. These laughably transparent characters tend to be rather lazy and low caliber. But they (and especially the folks they hire to do the dirty work) are not dunces regarding the subject of manipulation. Quite the opposite. "Business" is all about manipulation.

But an even deeper irony of all this jazz (and an irony that perfectly befits this particular comment thread) is that the English language is so inherently potentially subversive, with its almost absurdly unnecessary (yet necessary!) subtly complicated tenses, idioms, idiosyncratic possibilities, and its highly evolved, flexible ability to absorb and convey concepts.

But don't worry. We're all being manipulated into using English in ways that are increasingly simplistic and non-subversive. We are being pigeonholed. The folks who believe that they OWN US (and there are such people) do not want us to exercise our critical thinking skills. And they're becoming quite adept at dummying-down the English language towards that end. And as our ability to employ and comprehend linguistic subtleties deteriorates (and it is deteriorating), we shall continue to become more and more vulnerable to manipulation.

Would anyone care to argue that the "business community" is unbias enough, responsible enough, and ETHICAL enough to make da compooters and all da massive FUN-FUN mass-media newz-tainment language stuff reely cool distracting and in a nice happy way 4 short attention spans that has nothin ta do with all that comp'icated psycholojickle stuff? Reely? U think? Shur. What he said. That a good argum ent. It worx fer me LOL (Insert dancing pickle emoticon HERE.)

All I know is that I'm confused by all these comp'icated rules that are not really rules. I don't want to think about what I intend. I just wanna have fun. That's what life is all about, doncha know. (Again, no question mark.) And isn't it nice to have so much help figuring out how to have fun? And how to do stuff? Duhh Yup! I want REAL rules. Rules that will tell me exactly what to do. I want rules that will bully me into submission. Who cares about the myriad, subtle variations of meaning and INTENT that one encounters in a vital, thoroughly nuanced written language? I don't! And what's the point of trying to know anything when one can just sit back and enjoy the ride? Who knows.

By the way, this comment is completely apt. From start to finish. Plus it was fun to write. And it didn't even take a lot of time. I'm quick. (Please pardon my typos.) And I may even be slightly above average and somewhat knowledgeable.

Sure, some folks may complain that it's too long, or too comp'icated, or that they don't like my TONE. Just like some folks go around encouraging everyone to always put a question mark at the end of a sentence that begins with the word "Who" simply because it begins with the word "Who." But those folks are just plain WRONG. Do not heed their bad advice. The most accurate answer to the question posed is anything but ambiguous. It is about thinking FREELY. And it IS knowable. Who knows? Not everyone equally. But to one who knows, the answer is as clear as an un-muddied lake...as clear an azure sky of deepest summer. You can rely on me ;-) I am a fount of accuracy.

In the sage words of another thoughtful violinist who was better at math than I could ever dream of being: "Make things as simple as possible, but not simpler."

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I agree with DQ, and I think he's right.

'God knows' is actually saying that only God knows, although you're really saying His name in vain. In other words, you don't actually have to to mean it even though you say it (but it's good not to!).

@porsche, well I think pretty much all questions that start with 'who' have that intonation, anyway.

In any case, 'Who knows?' is definitely question. Analogising with the example of using 'God', you don't have to mean it as a question for it to be an actual question. There is a term for this: And, yes, it is a rhetorical question. Now, it is true it is an expression, but expressions can be statements/declarations, orders, or questions!

I feel that your initiating question explains it itself! In,

"I consider “who knows” as a phrase or an expression, not a question"

you already understand that you are considering it not as a question. The issue is just in whether it should still be called a question.

According to wiki,

"A rhetorical question is a figure of speech in the form of a question posed for its persuasive effect without the expectation of a reply (e.g.: "Why me?")"

Just as 'why me?' means something like 'it shouldn't be me', or 'I don't want it to be me', 'who knows?' means something like 'nobody knows', or 'there is no one that knows.. Who do you actually know that knows?'

To,

"Adding a question mark sort of ruins the response especially in writing"

I say, no it doesn't. If you are the writer, then the actual response should be the actual response, or reaction, to what the character in your writing actually said, or asked. And, that character should have asked it the right way, whichever way the writer wanted it to be. And, judging by the response, again, written by the writer, readers will completely understand.

To all the examples given so far, I would pronounce it exactly like a question. I think all you have to read it again.. I always say it like it's a question, although I obviously know it is not. And, I've never heard otherwise; like, I don't even know how you would not read it like a question.

I think you are getting with 'Who knows?' and 'God knows.', because it has a similar intonation. However, if I were to read 'God knows?' as question, it would sound similar to, 'Is that right?'.

But, still there are two or more ways to read 'Who knows?' as a question. And, for that, using a period instead of a question mark would definitely make a difference. In writing, however, it should always be a question mark. Not only for grammatical correctness, but I get confused. It would actually take me 30 seconds or so to realise that it's not someone called 'who'; I'm just conditioned that way. I think most people wouldn't take as long.

In poetry and other arts like novel-writing, it would be acceptable (arguably grammatically as well) to use a period after 'who knows'. Part of the art is straying away from normal conventions. And, even in these cases, I am naturally inclined and conditioned to understand what the author means or may mean when he put a period instead of a question mark (because all authors already know the rules, they are obviously doing this intentionally). In other words, it wouldn't take me as long as about 30 seconds in those instances.

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Definitely a question. As for doing away with rules because English is evolving and a question mark is redundant...if we keep that up, we will all be speaking Ebonics in a few years. There are reasons for rules, and not just so people can break them.

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Who cares? Most educated people know it should be followed by a question mark.

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Robert,

How would you punctuate the phrase in prose? Some type of punctuation is necessary if the phrase appears in continuous text.

-DQ

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Frank,
Everything you have said makes me very very happy!

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For me it's pretty clear that "Who knows?" needs a question mark, just as other rhetorical questions like "What's the point?" need one.

As for your longer sentence Dyske, I wouldn't read it like a question (by the time I get to the end of the sentence, my brain has forgotten that it started with a "who") so I'd say a question mark is optional in that case.

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Regarding the "God knows" response, in that case, God is being used as the specified subject of the sentence, implying that 'only God knows'. Therefore, it would not be the same as "Who knows", which is in fact a question, implying 'does anyone really know'.

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Why don't we ask Who? He'll know.

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Frank,
Everything you said makes me sad.
-DQ

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I think you are incorrect in telling me that I should have used "though" where I used "but." Your "correction" is not a correction but a change in the meaning. I said what I intended to say.

Otherwise, beyond being an assertion that you like grammar rules, you give us no supportive argument except your taste. Obviously your view is a popular one, so I will repeat: there is no good reason for a grammatical rule except to avoid unintended ambiguity. That we are usually better off using good taste in our writing is an aesthetic call, not a grammatical rule.

To the question at hand (must "who knows" take a question mark), I point out that the textbook rule is to attach the question mark to the end of actual questions (not even indirect questions) . Therefore, our statement should not take such a mark unless (unlikely) the expression is stated as in fact a question, not an exclamation or dismissal.

However, things being what they are, I would not mark down a student for failing to follow this rule. The indoctrination to put a question mark at the end of every sentence that has the form of a question, regardless of whether or not it actually is a question, is just too strong and not worth the effort.

The only real use for the question mark in English is not to indicate questions but to tell the reader they should end the sentence with an up-tone (required in English for yes-no questions). However, many readers react against authors who fail to follow the question-mark rule they were taught, so usually I accept the prejudice and follow their silly rule. However, the rule is for actual direct questions, not for other things that may have the form of a question.

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I agree with the writer, that it should end with a period. This is where grammatical rules have to bend, and do best when punctuation follows tone, and the nuance, of what is being said, rather than the typified mark expected. Here, the tone is emits a statement, not a query. Such flexibility in English, breaking the traditional rules, allows for organic and creative composition of the language --ultimately, the strength of it too.

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I know the question mark is the most grammatically proper way to punctuate the phrase "Who knows?" but I feel the exclamation mark is the most logical punctuation. You are not really asking a question, rather answering your own: Do you need a question mark? Who knows! You are really declaring something. It's not even a rhetorical question. It's a claim. You are saying nobody knows. Maybe it should depend on where you use it. For example, it "feels" more proper to use a question mark if you follow it with an answer: Who knows? I don't!

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For me no question mark just a period when it is a statement. Why does everybody hate so and so? Who knows. (Goodness knows ... I've no idea ... .) Maybe even an exclamation mark.

On the other hand:

Listen up class, if I have x amount of this add x amount of that, subtract x amount of the other and divide it by 3, what number do I end up with. Who knows? (Does anyone know the answer?)

Just my opinion!

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Regarding inflection, not all questions inflect upwards at the end. In "Who ate my bagel?", I would inflect downwards at the end, not upwards, but clearly it's still a question. In fact, if I followed with "You ate my bagel!", the inflection would be pretty much identical.

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What is the purpose of life?

According to Calvin (of Calvin & Hobbs) the purpose of life is to grow up and reproduce before something bigger than you comes along and eat you.

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English is tending toward doing away with all the Victorian rules, and I think this includes the old rule that questions always require a question mark. If the sentence is obviously a question, then there is no need--the mark is in fact redundant. It is only when there is possible ambiguity ("You are happy," vs "You are happy?") that a special signal for an up-tone is needed.

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I had the same argument as Frank. Frank beat me to it. I would like to add that you can't put a period at the end of "Who knows" either. Not really, anyway. I think it needs zero punctuation. It is very plain to see that it is really a response to the question asked before. A simple response. Not a question. Not a rhetorical question. Not a statement. Not a sentence in full at all. just two words as a response and thus zero punctuation is needed. There will be now words said after the response. No confusion will be had. It's understood as what it is.

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"There will be now words said after the response. No confusion will be had. It’s understood as what it is."

Oops ... sorry "no words".

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think some places there is no meaning and alot of the time you have to give it a meaning basically to be honest with you. Think the whole point of life is a mystery basically in all honesty. It might be that we don't get an answer at all to be honest with you and if we do then it would be an achievment basically to be honest with you.

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I don't think it always needs a question mark, but who knows. In the previous sentence, it is a rhetorical question at the end of a statement.

I was thinking it wasn't needed there, where it would if I were saying something like, "I am not, but are you?"

It's similar but the question is not rhetorical. It doesn't feel right either way now. Is there some other mark we can use? What is that upside down question mark for? That could work.

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Porsche is of course right that intonation doesn't necessarily go up at the end of questions, isn't he? - I'm not really asking a question with that tag - 'isn't he?', and the intonation would usually go down. But tag questions are still questions, and still need a question mark, even if we don't expect an answer, don't they?

And so does 'Who knows?', which is certainly a question, albeit a rhetorical one. 'Who' only has two grammatical functions - relative pronoun and interrogative pronoun, and here it's the latter, so a it needs that question mark, unless you want to break all the conventions of normal writing. Otherwise, as someone else has pointed out, someone called 'who' apparently knows.

Yes, a lot of the time question marks aren't strictly necessary for understanding, but then neither are exclamation marks, commas, semi-colons and colons (or brackets for that matter!). If you're going to throw out question marks, why not just throw out the whole caboodle?

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@Matt K - rhetorical questions are still questions:

What have the Romans ever done for us? - Life of Brian
Is the Pope a Catholic?
Smoking can lead to lung cancer. Who knew?!

All taken from Wikipedia's entry on rhetorical questions.

And that upside down question mark is for introducing questions in Spanish:

¿Cómo llegas a tan tarde? - Why are you so late?

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Make it it's own line with no subsequent text adjacent to it.

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We were have a simular debate when publishing a yearly Gazette,
Should there be a question mark after the following -
"What's on and Where" "What's on and Where?"

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I feel that choosing punctuation would be a much better solution .

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I wholeheartedly and fundamentally disagree with you. There is zero reason to do so. ZERO. It's understood.

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I think if "What's on and Where" is used as a title to an article then the question mark seems appropriate. But if it's used as the header for a list then it doesn't need it.

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