Punctuating questions

  • Punctuating QuestionsHere’s one of those things that tend to trip me up: questions inside sentences, where the questions are not direct quotes.
  • Quotes, of course, we can handle well enough, as with the following example:
  • She asked me, “How do you punctuate this sentence?”
  • But how would you punctuate the following sentence, which contains a direct question that is not a quote?
  • the question is how do you punctuate this sentence

Should there be a question mark at the end of the sentence? Should the question part be in italics? In quotation marks? Should there be a comma—or maybe a colon—before “how”? Should “how” be capitalized?

Here’s what the experts say (I’m referring to the Chicago Manual of Style, 16th ed.):

1) When you have a direct question that is part of a sentence (as in my example), introduce it with a comma and end it with a question mark. Don’t use italics.

  1. The question is, how do you punctuate this sentence?
  2. 2) The question itself shouldn’t start with a capital letter unless it’s a long question and/or the question itself has punctuation.
  3. So in the following example we might want to capitalize the word how because (a) the question is quite long; and (b) the question itself contains punctuation (in this case what’s called an em-dash: —):
  4. The question is, How do you punctuate this sentence—with a capital or with a lower case letter at the beginning?
  5. Finally, bear in mind that all of the above applies only to direct questions—those that can stand on their own. Indirect questions, on the other hand, are simply written as part of the sentence, as in the following example:
  6. The question is how you punctuate this sentence.

Here, the part “how you punctuate this sentence” cannot stand on its own. It’s an indirect question, and so we don’t introduce it with a comma or end it with a question mark.

In fact, Chicago suggests that if the direct question looks awkward, you might consider rephrasing the sentence so that it has an indirect question and you don’t have to worry about the whole thing at all.

But then I wonder, what should I be writing about instead?

Have you wondered how to punctuate questions inside sentences (that’s an indirect question inside a direct question—go figure)? Do you have any examples you can share and how you ended up punctuating them?

For more information, see Chicago Manual of Style (16h ed.), par. 6.52. Sign up for a free 30-day online trial at http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/home.html.

Image at top courtesy of scottchan.

Posted by Dirk on April 27, 2012

Questions inside sentences

What is the best way to punctuate a list of questions in a declarative sentence?

Here's how I would write it:

This poses questions such as “How should I punctuate it,” “Are the quotes necessary,” “Are the commas in the correct place,” and “Should I have used a colon, or a semi-colon?”

I would say that the more important punctuation mark here is the comma, and you can't have both. Since the questions are obviously questions even without a question mark, and since you are referring to the questions as objects rather than invoking them as queries, it's OK to lose the question marks.

For example, you could imagine

The interview consisted of the usual “Where did you go to school” kind of question.

There is no need for a question mark here because you are using “Where did you go to school” as the name of a question to which you are referring, rather than as the question itself.

To some extent, though, your choice here is going to depend on what tone and cadence you want the reader to imagine in their head.

Putting in the question marks will cause the reader to pause and raise their inner voices as if reading a question, which will have the effect of putting more emphasis on the specific question.

Leaving out the question marks will cause the reader to rush through the list without pausing or imagining a question, which will have the effect of de-emphasizing the questions. So it's up to you what kind of melody you want the prose to have.

Question mark

The question mark is used at the end of a direct question. Indirect questions take a period.

Direct question

What is she doing tonight?

Indirect question

I wonder what she’s doing tonight.

Direct question

The question is, Does anyone support this legislation?

Indirect question

The question was whether anyone supported the legislation.

When a direct question occurs within a larger sentence, it takes a question mark. Note that in the examples below, the question mark supplants the comma that would syntactically belong in its place.

Correct

Would they make it on time? she wondered.

The key question, Can the two sides reach a compromise? was not answered.

“What are we having for dinner?” his son asked.

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Incorrect

Would they make it on time?, she wondered.

The key question, Can the two sides reach a compromise?, was not answered.

“What are we having for dinner?,” his son asked.

In contrast with the examples above, when the question mark is part of a title of work, a syntactically necessary comma is retained.

Note in the first example below that when the question mark is part of the title of a work that is set in italics, as it is in the cited novel, the question mark is italicized.

The adjacent comma, which is not part of the title, is not italicized. The question mark that ends the example sentence below is not part of the title of the cited movie, so it is not italicized even though the movie title is.

(For more about using italics with titles of works, see here.)

Examples

Have you read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the Philip Dick novel that inspired the movie Blade Runner?

“Is He Living or Is He Dead?,” by Mark Twain, is one of my favorite stories.

When the question mark in the title comes at the end of a sentence that would itself require a question mark or period, the additional question mark or period is omitted.

Correct

Have you read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

I have not read Mark Twain’s “Is He Living or Is He Dead?”

Incorrect

Have you read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep??

I have not read Mark Twain’s “Is He Living or Is He Dead?”.

Requests that are phrased as questions should end with a period. These are really requests or commands, and not true questions.

Example

Would you please send this report to the person indicated on the cover.

The question mark can be used to indicate editorial uncertainty, either in parentheses or in brackets. Some authorities include a space between the uncertain word and the opening parenthesis; others omit the space (as shown in the example below).

Examples

The patient reported taking 15(?) milligrams of alprazolam.

According to his biographer, Smith “bought the company in 1985 [1984?], but he wasn’t actively engaged in its management until 1990.”

Use of the question mark with other punctuation, including quotation marks, is explained in the section on terminal punctuation.

How to use punctuation in direct speech

In reports and stories, a writer often wants to tell the reader what someone has said. There are two ways of doing this. The speaker’s words can either be reported (in a style known as reported speech), or they can be quoted directly in what’s called direct speech.

Reported speech

  • In reported speech, the actual words are not usually quoted directly. Usually, they are summarized or paraphrased and there are no special punctuation issues to take into account:
  • The 180 respondents said that the main reason for setting up in business was to be their own boss.
  • Trade union representatives expressed their satisfaction at the news that there would be no job losses.

Direct speech

In direct speech, various punctuation conventions are used to separate the quoted words from the rest of the text: this allows a reader to follow what’s going on. Here are the basic rules:

  • The words that are actually spoken should be enclosed in inverted commas:
  1. ‘He’s very clever, you know.’
  2. In British English, the usual style is to use single inverted commas but it is not wrong to use double ones:
  3. “He’s very clever, you know.”
  • Every time a new speaker says something, you should start a new paragraph:

‘They think it’s a more respectable job,’ said Jo.

‘I don’t agree,’ I replied.

  • There should be a comma, full stop, question mark, or exclamation mark at the end of a piece of speech. This is placed inside the closing inverted comma or commas.

‘Can I come in?’ he asked.

‘Just a moment!’ she shouted.

‘You’re right,’ he said.

'I didn't expect to win.'

  • If direct speech comes after the information about who is speaking, you should use a comma to introduce the piece of speech, placed before the first inverted comma:

Steve replied, ‘No problem.’

  • If the direct speech is broken up by information about who is speaking, you need a comma (or a question mark or exclamation mark) to end the first piece of speech and a full stop or another comma before the second piece (before the inverted comma or commas):

‘You’re right,’ he said. ‘It feels strange.’

‘Thinking back,’ she said, ‘he didn’t expect to win.’

‘No!’ he cried. ‘You can’t leave now!’

Back to punctuation.

See more from Punctuation

How to punctuate

There's a good chance you punctuate poorly and don't realize it.

This page will fix your mistakes. It covers the top ten rules of punctuation.

But let's first consider why you should care about punctuation:

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♖ Good writing is an indicator of an organized mind that is capable of arranging information in a systematic fashion to help other people understand things. — Dustin J. Mitchell♖ Clear writing leads to clear thinking. You don’t know what you know until you try to express it. — Michael A. Covington♖ If you are deciding between two people to hire, always choose the better writer. Assuming they are equally qualified, the better writer will communicate work issues more clearly. This extends to emails, messages — frankly, everywhere. — David Heinemeier Hansson

Don't take punctuation too seriously

Let’s also clarify what’s not important: The lesser-known rules of grammar and punctuation that instruct us to write in ways that differ from everyday speech .

In practice, no one cares if you start a sentence with “and”  —  because that’s how people talk. By definition, there’s usually no loss in clarity by communicating naturally.

There is, however, loss of clarity when transposing speech to writing without respect for the purpose of punctuation: being clearly understood.

You'll see how misusing punctuation not only confuses readers but also marks you as someone who doesn’t pay attention to detail. 

Let's begin with punctuation rule number one. I'm going to use absurd examples to keep this post fun.

1. Separate danglers with a comma

A “dangler” is my term for a word located at the extreme end of a sentence that either:

  • A) addresses someone being spoken to, or
  • B) answers a question with an affirmative (yes) or negative (no) word

Examples of addressing someone being spoken to

Correct: “Matt, you eat way too many pimply pickles.”

Correct: “Why do you keep flicking my belly button, Matt?”

In both examples, the person being spoken to is referenced at either extreme end of the sentence. Notice that the word used to address the person (e.g. “Matt”) is separated from the rest of the sentence with a comma. 

  • Always do this. If you don’t, you could run into the following problem:
  • Potentially confusing: “Let’s eat grandpa.”
  • Very clear: “Let’s eat, grandpa.”
  • Potentially confusing: “Where’s the kitchen Matt?”
  • Very clear: “Where’s the kitchen, Matt?”

Getting Specific—Addressing Readers’ Examples (Part 2)

  • November 8, 2015 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill last modified November 8, 2015
  • This article is the third in a series focusing on specific reader questions. Other articles in the series include:
  • Answering Your Questions About Specifics (Introduction)
  • Getting Specific—Addressing Readers’ Examples (Part 1)
  • __________________________________

Because the answer to today’s question is wordy, we’re just going to focus on the one question in this article. (Both question and answer are edited from their original forms.) Since the question is a multipart one, I’ve paired the answers with their questions.

This question focuses on commas paired with question marks and exclamation points inside quotation marks.

Although we typically only use one punctuation mark in most places—for example, question marks and exclamation points often replace the comma or period—for clarity we can use multiple marks.

We sometimes have a comma following a period—for example, when the period is part of an abbreviation. And we can pair a period with an ellipsis or include single quotation marks next to doubles.

But some combinations of multiple punctuation marks would be rare—so rare that you might never use the construction—but as we see here, sometimes there are instances when the two marks are both necessary.

Question

The weekly periodical, “How Do We Invest In the Future?,” is very popular. (Comma goes inside the ending quote because a title of a work is being referenced, correct?)

Answer

Yes, the comma goes inside the quotation marks and after the question mark because the question mark is part of the periodical’s title.  (The comma would go outside the quotation marks for BrE.

) The comma is still necessary in this case because the question mark is not replacing it. The question mark isn’t part of the sentence’s punctuation; it’s simply part of the title being quoted. So the sentence still requires its normal punctuation.

The same would hold true for an exclamation point that was part of a title being quoted.

Question

Chicago (Chicago Manual of Style or CMOS) 16 doesn’t specifically address this next issue. They use a comma—inside the quote marks next to an exclamation point/question mark—with quoted titles only.

So are these correct? These are not quoted titles.

When Jill screamed, “Help!” the neighbors called 911.

When Frank asked, “Where’s the keg?” his wife said that his friend drank it all.

Answer

CMOS (16th ed.) addresses the issue in section 6.119.

“When a question mark or exclamation point appears at the end of a quotation where a comma would normally appear, the comma is omitted . . .”

  1. CMOS goes on to say explain the allowance for including a comma for titles that end in exclamation points or question marks (the situation in our reader’s first question).
  2. The Copyeditor’s Handbook (CH), however, allows commas under an additional condition.
  3. They include an allowance for adding commas in a sentence with an appositive, which means the sentence has a section of text that is set apart by commas.
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Yet the example CH uses for this allowance also includes titles, so it’s difficult to know whether it’s actually the title (with the question mark)  or the appositive that leads to the need for the comma. But they say it’s because there’s an appositive, so we’ll go with that rationale.

Punctuating a series of questions

Q: I saw this sentence in an article about a court ruling on the Affordable Care Act: “Still, a remand for greater clarity on the scope of the judgment—to whom does it apply? can’t some parts of the ACA be severed?—may be in the cards.” Is it kosher to have two question marks within dashes?

A: Yes, a series of questions in the middle of a sentence, surrounded by dashes or parentheses, is punctuated in just that way. Each question begins with a lowercase letter and ends with a question mark, according to language  guides.

But if the series is at the end, and if the questions are complete clauses, you have a choice.

You can introduce the series with a dash and use lowercase letters: “Still, a remand for greater clarity on the scope of the judgment may be in the cards—to whom does it apply? can’t some parts of the ACA be severed?”

Or you can introduce the series with a colon and capitalize each question, which is a good idea if the individual questions are longer: “Still, a remand for greater clarity on the scope of the judgment may be in the cards: To whom does it apply? Can’t some parts of the ACA be severed?”

Questions in a series aren’t always complete clauses; they can be phrases or single words.

Pat’s grammar and usage book Woe Is I (4th ed.) cites this sentence: “Would Tina have to buy a new hair dryer? toothbrush? swimsuit?” And since the sentence as a whole is a question, you can use commas in the series and a question mark at the end: “Would Tina have to buy a new hair dryer, toothbrush, swimsuit?”

How to Punctuate Quotations with Question Marks

By Geraldine Woods

English grammarians have devised a special set of rules for punctuating quotations that are questions. Pop quiz: Does the question mark go inside or outside of the quotation mark? Well, the answer is, it depends.

Take a look at Betsy’s quotations:

“How can you eat a tuna sandwich while hoisting a piano?” Betsy asked as she eyed his lunch.

“May I have a bite?” she queried.

Here are the same questions put another way:

As she eyed his lunch Betsy asked, “How can you eat a tuna sandwich while hoisting a piano?”

She queried, “May I have a bite?”

What do you notice about these two sets of quotations? That’s right! The quoted words are questions.

If you quote a question, put the question mark inside the quotation marks.

This rule makes good sense; it distinguishes a quoted question from a quotation embedded in a question. Time to look at one more part of Betsy’s encounter with the falling piano. The piano mover answered Betsy, but no one could understand his words. (He had a mouthful of tuna fish.)

Did he say, “I can’t give you a bite of my sandwich because I ate it all”?

Did he really declare, “It was just a piano”?

The quoted words in this set are not questions. However, each entire sentence is a question. Now it’s time for more rules:

If the quoted words aren’t a question but the entire sentence is a question, the question mark goes outsidethe quotation marks. (This rule makes sense too, don’t you think?)

To sum up the rules on question marks:

  • If the quoted words are a question, put the question mark insidethe quotation marks.
  • If the entire sentence is a question, put the question mark outside the quotation marks.

Some of you detail-oriented (okay, picky) people may want to know what to do when the quotation and the sentence are both questions. Read on.

For those rare occasions when both the quoted words and the sentence are questions, put the question mark inside the quotation marks.

Here’s an example of this rule:

Did the mover really ask, “Is that lady for real?”

No matter what, don’t use two question marks:

Wrong: Did Betsy ask, “What’s the number of a good lawyer?”?

Right: Did Betsy ask, “What’s the number of a good lawyer?”

Which sentence is correct?

A. Did Lulu say, “I wish a piano would drop on me so that I could sue?”

B. Did Lulu say, “I wish a piano would drop on me so that I could sue”?

Answer: Sentence B is correct. Because the quoted words are not a question and the entire sentence is a question, the question mark goes outside the quotation marks.

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