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Why do question marks show up in my emails?

Answer: Occasionally, when you view an email, you might see a random question mark in the middle of sentence. In some cases, you may see several question marks in a row. This means the person is either highly inquisitive or, more likely, the question marks are unrecognized characters.

Each character that is displayed on your screen is actually a binary value represented by a series of ones and zeroes. These values are defined in a "character set," which includes a range of letters, numbers, and symbols. If the character set is not defined in an email or your system does not support it, some characters may show up as a question marks.

Even if your computer does support all the characters in an email, you may still see question marks or other strange characters if the character encoding doesn't match. The character encoding specifies how each character is encoded as a binary value. Therefore, if your email client does not support the character encoding used in the sender's email, some characters may appear incorrectly.

Most often, if you see a random question mark here or there, it is probably a special character, like ñ, é, or —. These characters are not part of the standard ANSI character set and require a specific character encoding, such as UTF-8 or ISO 8859-1. If you see a bunch of question marks in a row, it is probably a series of characters from a non-Western language, such as Chinese or Arabic.

Next time you receive an email with lots of question marks (that isn't spam), you may want to ask the sender to send the message again from a different email program. Otherwise, you can request that the sender copy the text to a document and attach it to the email, so you can open it in a text editor.

Published: March 5, 2013 — by Per Christensson

Answer from the PC Help Center