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Monday, August 13, 2007

Question Marks in Mid-Sentence

An interesting question cropped up on my forum the other day. In this thread a member wrote:

I'm trying to write the following sentence, but I'm not sure how to punctuate it.

Have we displeased the gods, Eysha thought.

Should I have a question mark after gods, or even at all?
Here's an expanded version of the answer I gave...

There is no one correct answer to this. Personally I prefer the sentence as written:

Have we displeased the gods, Eysha thought.

An alternative (suggested by another member) would be to put the first part of the sentence in italics and give it a question mark:

Have we displeased the gods? Eysha thought.

I'm not a big fan of this approach, though. For one thing you can get into problems if your novel includes lots of thoughts, which it will if (as in most modern novels) you are writing in scenes portrayed from a single character's viewpoint. You don't want to end up with half your novel in italics and the other half in normal type. I would only use this method in a short story (and probably not even then).

Similar objections apply to the suggestion of using inverted commas (quotation marks) for thoughts:

'Have we displeased the gods?' Eysha thought.

One problem here is that we assume that a character is speaking, and it is only when we get to the end of the sentence we realise that they are actually thinking. Using inverted commas for thoughts also makes the text look cluttered. This approach was quite popular in the past, but nowadays it is seldom used by good writers.

Some writers would simply put a question mark after gods:

Have we displeased the gods? Eysha thought.

This isn't wrong - a question mark can serve as either a comma or a full stop. To most people's eyes, however, putting a question mark in mid-sentence - without any other punctuation - looks a little odd. In this case, also, there is a risk that the reader will think that 'Eysha thought' marks the start of a new sentence. I wouldn't write it that way myself, therefore.

One thing that would definitely be wrong is putting a question mark at the end of the sentence.

Have we displeased the gods, Eysha thought?

This sentence taken as a whole is not a question, so it cannot end with a question mark.

In summary, question marks in mid-sentence are a contentious area. Of course, where you have a spoken question followed by a speech tag, it's no problem:

"What shall we do now?" he asked.

But when you are writing a character's thoughts, there is probably no ideal solution in these cases, apart from rewriting the sentence so that the problem doesn't arise!

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

So what's the answer? he asked. Sorry, just wanted you to have a comment so you'd know someone read it.

9:31 PM  
Blogger Nick said...

Thanks, I think ;-)

8:50 AM  
Blogger marniemmmmm said...

One question that strikes me as very interesting is, who has a better understanding of the national interest: the Senate or the House of Commons?

How do I fix this sentance?

5:56 AM  
Blogger Nick said...

Hi Marnie

Actually, I don't think this sentence needs 'fixing'.

If it were me, I might prefer to use a dash rather than a colon:

Who has a better understanding of the national interest - the Senate or the House of Commons?

But the colon certainly isn't wrong - just a bit more formal.

I guess if you prefer to have the question mark after the main clause, you could turn the sentence around:

The Senate or the House of Commons - who has a better understanding of the national interest?

But in my opinion there is nothing grammatically wrong with your original version.

Hope this helps - Nick

10:30 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just found this blog while searching Google for use of question marks in mid-sentence. I had just texted my husband, "When are you coming home? so I can start cooking". Then I wondered how else to write a sentence like that. Suggestions?

2:38 AM  
Blogger Nick said...

Thanks for the question :-)

Informally, I don't think there's anything wrong with, 'When are you coming home so I can start cooking?'

Or if you prefer you could turn the sentence around:

'So I can start cooking, when are you coming home?'

Or maybe even:

'When are you coming home? So I can start cooking.'

The latter isn't strictly grammatical, of course, as the second part is a dependent clause. But informally it gets the point over.

Of course, if you really want to be grammatically correct, you could try something like:

'When are you coming home? I need to know so that I can start the cooking.'

If you're married to a grammarian I might recommend the latter, but otherwise I think any of the above would do ;-)

9:52 AM  

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