Questions on Periods


Question: Where does the period (.) or queston mark (?) go in a sentence containing quotation marks, i.e.:

"What would you like to do?"

-or-

"What would you like to do"?

Answer: The American punctuation system is very straightforward for periods: They are always placed inside of quotation marks.

Question marks are a little more complicated. They are placed inside of quotation marks when they are part of the quoted matter. In the example you give, "What would you like to do?" is conventional punctuation.

Problems arise when the question mark attaches not to the material inside the quotation marks, but rather to the frame of the sentence. This rule generates the following punctuation:

Why would the Grammar Hotline advise its readers, "Ordering of multiple punctuation marks sometimes depends on the syntax of the overall sentence"?

In this example, the question mark belongs to the "why" clause, not to the quotation.


Question: In your opinion, have I punctuated the following sentences correctly? I realize I have two complete sentences, but I am not sure if the parentheses affect the period after commentator.

I shall be giving a paper at a society meeting with the American Philosophical Association meeting in Los Angeles, with commentator. (I have also put in some department money, but contingencies may require me to divert it to other faculty.)

Answer: The punctuation is fine. You have two independent sentences, which are punctuated independently. It is possible to generate a construction with a parenthetical remark so closely related to the introductory sentence that it is actually a part of that sentence, which is a much harder punctuation problem. Your sentences are not of that type. As a matter of fact, my view as an outsider is that these sentences are completely unrelated. Parentheses and periods may not be enough to separate the m. They may need separate paragraphs--or even pieces of paper--or even file folders.


Question (from a film-subtitling company in Los Angeles): A friendly dispute has arisen at work: I contend that the phrase "Guess what" is a command and thus requires a period. My colleagues insist it is a question.

Answer: Who are these people? I didn't think Californians ever insisted on anything. I thought they just "leaned weakly toward the possibility that . . ."

At any rate, you will be gratified (but not surprised) to hear that you are right, and they are wrong, wrong, wrong--or at least tilting in the wrong direction. "Guess what" is an imperative, which is conventionally punctuated with a period, not with a question mark.

This, of course, will not satisfy the insisters, who are likely to suspect that you have hired a grammatical ringer. To convince them of the error of their ways, you will have to toss them an analytical bone.

Here's the rest of the story:

Imperative sentences in English are conventionally punctuated with a period, not with a question mark, but this, of course, begs the question whether this is an imperative sentence at all. Many seeming imperatives are actually simply colloquially short ened versions of interrogatives. Let's compare two sentences that seem to be similar:

Know what(./?)

Guess what(./?)

The deep structure of "Know what" can be expanded to "Do you know what?" and "Do you know what?" is clearly a question. Furthermore, "Know what" could never logically be an imperative, since you can't command someone to know something.

"Guess what," of course, is different. You can clearly command someone to guess something, whether or not they choose to comply. And though "Guess what" could perhaps be expanded to "Can you guess what?" the inflectional pattern suggests that that's no t what's going on at all.

Let's compare the inflectional patterns. "Know what" starts low and rises. This is what questions do. "Guess what" starts in the middle and stays there. This is what commands do.

This should be enough to cause your colleagues to lean weakly to the view that you could possibly be right in this particular case, though there may be extenuating circumstances that will cause them to alter their views in the future. This is as good a s it gets in the grammar business.


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