The Grammarphobia Blog

Questionable marks

Q: How do you punctuate a sentence that ends with a question asked about a question? Example: Was it Tina who cried, “What next?” Is a second question mark required for the sentence itself? Does it go outside the final quotation marks?

A: If a sentence ends with a question within a question, you don’t need two question marks.

As for where the question mark goes – right after the final quotation marks or just inside – that depends on which question the writer wishes to emphasize.

In your example, I’d punctuate it, as you do, like this: Was it Tina who cried, “What next?” This is a close call, and some might prefer to do it the other way: Was it Tina who cried, “What next”?

The book Words Into Type (3d ed.), by Skillin, Gay, and others, gives these two examples, which I’ve simplified somewhat.

(1) Has it ever occurred to you that she might retort, “Dangerous for whom”?

(2) How many of you have heard the question, “Which is the more important, heredity or environment?”

You can see that the writer has chosen to emphasize the overall question in #1, and the interior question in #2.

You can apply the same principle to sentences that mix exclamations and questions. Which do you go with, the exclamation point or the question mark? I’ll invent examples of both:

(1) Did I just hear “Abandon ship!” (The exclamation is emphasized.)

(2) Why in heaven’s name did you shout, “Wake up”? (The question is emphasized.)

This is a matter of judgment, and forces the writer to stop and think a bit. But don’t use both marks.

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