Questions on Multiple Punctuation Marks

Question (From an N.C. State staff member): Where in heaven's name did the habit of putting a punctuation mark within a quote become policy? When quoting something that does not especially end with a period it seems unnatural to put a period wit hin the quotation marks just because it ends a sentence. (". . . to take the food away from the cat is not always. . . ." To my way of thinking this is wrong and should be ". . .to take the food away from the cat is not always . . .". But, perhaps, I just don't see the logic.

Answer: You're right. American English is consistent in this punctuation policy. You can look for relief in British publications, which follow the rule you find more logical.

You are not alone in objecting to the American convention. A whole group of kindred spirits is lurking on one of the links from the N.C. State Online Writing Lab homepage. The "Frequently Asked Questions" link (on the bulleted list at the bottom of the page or directly at telp/styfaq1.htm#q1) puts this question to a vote of copyeditors. The American system wins out, but the British system has surprising support. The analysis covers the reasons for the opinions.

Question: How do you punctuate a quote within a quote within a quote? For example:

Bob said, "Sue said, 'My favorite poem is "The Raven".'"

Is the above punctuation correct, or is there some other way?

Answer: The rules generate a mess even worse than the one you supply. All quotation marks fall outside terminal punctuation. Thus:

Bob said, "Sue said, 'My favorite poem is "The Raven."'"

Fortunately, this kind of construction is extremely unlikely to occur. It has the character of a grammarian's party joke. After all, the punctuation is the least of its problems. Even orally, you can barely follow the words.

If you like this kind of thing, you might muse over the possibilities of the following sentence:

Should a doctor doctor a doctor according to the doctoring doctor's doctrine of doctoring doctored doctors, or should a doctor doctor a doctor according to the doctored doctor's doctrine of doctoring doctored doctors?

Question: Do you always put a period and comma inside quotation marks? Is it:

The floor was "like-new," and did not need repair. -or-

The floor was "like-new," and did not need repair.

The floor was not "like-new." -or-

The floor was not "like-new."

Answer: The direct answer to your question is yes. In American English, the convention is to put commas and periods inside quotation marks. The British follow a more complicated and time-consuming convention, which may be why there is no longer a British Empire.

The nit-picking answer to your question is yes, and furthermore, neither American nor English writers put a hyphen in a stock phrase like like new when that phrase is unambiguous, as it always is when it is a predicate adjective.

The working answer to your question is yes, and drop the hyphen, and while you're at it, drop the quotation marks. Like new is perfectly familiar diction, which means that it doesn't require typographical emphasis. Quotation marks are used to dr aw attention to a new coinage or an old word used in a new way. In this case, the quotation marks are likely to make your readers think that you are lying about the condition of the floors, and that they are not like new at all, but rather that the owner simply wishes them to be perceived as like new. The latter condition might fairly be characterized as a slopping mess, or, as we say in advertising, "loaded with potential."

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

"What would you like to do?" ľor-

"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 (From an English faculty member): I have trouble with question marks when question are embedded in a longer sentence:

Her question, "Would you like a copy of the memo?" took him by surprise.

I feel the need of another comma at the end of the question to match the one after question, but "?," seems odd. Must one rewrite to avoid the embedding? Or what?

Answer: Your punctuation of the embedded sentence is technically correct (Chicago Manual 5.5, "When two different marks of punctuation are called for at the same location in a sentence, the stronger mark only is retained."), which, I susp ect, is small comfort. Writers who feel the need of a comma are seldom distracted by prescriptive grammatical rules.

I recommend grammatical psychoanalysis. This, of course, may take decades, but let's start with the core questions: Why do you feel the need for a comma? Do you have any reason to believe that your felt need will be shared by your projected readership?

If you want the comma merely because you believe appositives have a divine right to be bracketed off, you can probably be persuaded to accept the Chicago rule. A question mark, after all, provides enough of a pause. Appositives will simply have to live with punctuation downsizing.

If, on the other hand, you think that your projected readership is likely to be distracted by the morass of punctuation and miss what you're trying to say, you have a different problem. If you want to retain your wording, the first remedy would be to b racket off the appositive with M-dashes. This will solve your punctuation problem but may affect your meaning by deemphasizing the quotation.

If you're unhappy with this deemphasis, you might want to examine whether the quotation had the proper emphasis in the first place. It's buried in the middle of a main clause--and it's out of chronological order in the implied scenario. You may indeed want to rewrite the sentence, but your motive ought to be refining emphasis and meaning--not fixing punctuation.

Question (From an N.C. State undergraduate): I'm trying to figure out how to incorporate a quote from a short story into an analytical paper. For instance, consider this excerpt from a hypothetical short story:

"N.C. State is great!" Robert yelled.

If I wanted to quote that exclamation in my text, would it look like this?

Robert's enthusiasm for his university is apparent in his yell of "N.C. State is great!"

Basically, how do you quote quotes? I hope this question makes sense.

Answer: You have stepped into a punctuation quagmire. I assume that the example you have given has been shortened for simplicity's sake. The exact example you give is a close cousin of an indirect quotation (Robert said that he thinks N.C. State is great.). In such a case, one set of double quotes is sufficient:

Robert's enthusiasm for his university is apparent in his yell of "N.C. State is great!"

On the other hand, if you are actually quoting a substantive quotation within your text, you must imbed single quotation marks within the double quotation marks. It looks like this:

Robert's enthusiasm for his university was apparent in his heartfelt valedictory address: "Robert rose slowly and walked to the podium. He took a deep breath and punched his fist in the air as he shouted 'N.C. State is great!'"

Imbedded single and double quotation marks, of course, are visually indistinguishable from a chicken track on your typescript, which is why many writers try to quote enough of the original to justify setting the quotation off in a tabbed block extract, which requires no punctuation to show that you are quoting it from another source except the tab.

Unfortunately, in typeset copy the standard rule is that copy cannot be extracted if it is under fifty words (or about ten lines), and it is very bad form to quote more of the text than you need to make your point simply to sidestep a punctuation quagm ire.

Question (From the Internet): I learned, many years ago, that it is proper to construct an interrogative sentence containing multiple questions with each question separated by a question mark. Is this a proper form of sentence construction? is i t an archaic form? do i date myself by revealing this bit of early English instruction? was it my British grandmother? is it a matter of style? Should each question start with a Capital Letter? could my memory be failing me? what is your advice?

Answer: Yes. No. This implies that you in fact had early English instruction; therefore, yes. Pish. No. Yes. Of course. Forge onward.

Oh. Excuse me. I have been encouraged to give simple yes or no answers to questions directed to the Grammar Hotline, but I find the approach less than satisfactory.

In general, the problem you pose seldom arises, because the individual questions are independent sentences and are punctuated and capitalized as such. In the paragraph you have constructed as an example, the questions posed are not embedded into a main clause frame. They are simply a series of independent questions, each of which is a complete sentence. Each is entitled to its own terminal punctuation (a question mark) and its own initial capital letter.

I can imagine cases where there might be confusion ("The journalist must answer five questions: who, what, when, where, and why."), but constructions that pose questions that call for actual answers and that are read with an upward inflection at questi on end require sentencelike punctuation and capitalization.

I have one last comment. It is never safe to blame anything on a relative unless that relative is safely dead and without potential defenders who have memories.

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