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May I use a question mark in the middle of a sentence?

Examples:

Would you like the drapes to be white? or perhaps something off-white?

Would you like the logo to be centered? at the bottom? left off entirely?

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Related: Capitalization after a question mark –  KitFox Aug 4 '11 at 18:54
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7 Answers

up vote 11 down vote accepted

I've mainly seen these in older literature, usually used in dialogue, but sometimes in rhetorical essays. It is rare in common and modern writing. I'd advise against it.

You should either capitalize or rephrase/repunctuate:

Would you like the drapes to be white? Or perhaps something off-white?

Would you like the logo to be centered? At the bottom? Left off entirely?

Or:

Would you like the drapes to be white; or perhaps something off-white?

Would you like the logo to be centered or at the bottom? Should it be left off entirely?

The former change (capitalizing) is more informal than the latter suggestion; also, the latter can be legitimately tweaked in several places based on context.

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Yeah, but why capitalize a sentence fragment like "At the bottom?" Leaving it uncapitalized at least shows that you know it is not a sentence, right? –  thursdaysgeek Aug 4 '11 at 22:39
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I'm pointing out that capitalization is more common here than not. As to knowing whether it's a sentence, dialogue has relaxed rules for this, and people say fragments more frequently than they write them. Besides, I don't think anyone is going to think I think At the bottom is a sentence. –  Daniel Aug 4 '11 at 22:44
    
You're probably right, but I wish I could still use it. –  Jeremy Stein Aug 5 '11 at 13:47
    
@thursdaysgeek At chompchomp.com/terms/fragment.htm , there is a sensible-looking treatment of different types of sentence fragments. They are all punctuated in the same way as related sentences. –  Edwin Ashworth Jul 9 '13 at 15:54
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I randomly picked some old books and found examples in every one:

From The Way of the World by William Congreve, 1700:

Right, lady; I am Sir Wilfull Witwoud, so I write myself; no offence to anybody, I hope? and nephew to the Lady Wishfort of this mansion.

From History of Tom Jones, a Foundling by Henry Fielding, 1749:

Nay, I will venture to go farther, it is being in some degree epicures: for what could the greatest epicure wish rather than to eat with many mouths instead of one? which I think may be predicated of any one who knows that the bread of many is owing to his own largesses.

From School for Scandal by Richard Brinsley Sheridan, 1777:

O Fie--Sir Peter--would you have ME join in so mean a Trick? to trepan my Brother too?

From The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas, 1844:

"How? know you again? Did you ever see that man before?"

From Marvels of Pond-life, by Henry J. Slack, 1861:

What are they? animals or vegetables? or something betwixt and between?

It was quite common in the 18th century books, less so in in the 19th century. Perhaps now that it's the 21st century, it's time to die out, but I kind of like it. It feels like a link to the past, an archaic but valid use of the symbol.

Oh mid-sentence question mark! Will you die out? with none to resurrect your use?

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I often see this in exercises in elementary mathematics textbooks. First it asks a question, then adds some variants afterward that are only fragments:

Farmer Jones has a horse pen that is 12 meters by 10 meters. What is the area of the pen? the perimeter? the width?

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I believe in these cases the question mark is closest in function to a semi-colon. If you know what I mean when I say this, then feel free to use it with the same sensitivity as you do with a semi-colon (and ignore Kurt Vonnegut, he's so hipster it hurts). A sort of pause: "would rather the curtains be red? or some other colour?"

If you don't feel confident in using a semi-colon properly, then perhaps it's best to ignore it and stick to the most general usage, which is like that of a full stop.

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In general, the question mark serves as an "end of sentence" marker. So in these example questions, the first letter of the next word should be capitalised, because they start new sentences.

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To add on, you should probably only do this in informal writing. –  simchona Aug 4 '11 at 18:11
    
@simchona: That's mainly because you probably don't want to be asking questions at all in formal writing, although I admit that OP's "truncated" follow-on questions convey an even more informal tone. –  FumbleFingers Aug 4 '11 at 18:18
    
Here's an example from an on-line guide: Who is responsible for executing the plan? the coach? the coaching staff? the players? –  Jeremy Stein Aug 4 '11 at 18:32
    
@Jeremy Stein: Interesting link, but personally I would ignore their "advice" on that particular point. Though to be honest, I'm not sure if they're actually recommending the usage, or pointing out that it can occur and isn't necessarily incorrect. –  FumbleFingers Aug 4 '11 at 18:37
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This is very informal in modern grammar. In a context where grammar is unimportant such as blogs, memo's, text messages, etc... then this is fine. (Please note that I'm not implying that all blogs, memos, txt's are not unimportant)

In Tweets, this can be helpful to save space but convey the right meaning.

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It's also highly informal to use unnecessary apostrophe's to indicate plurals. :-) –  Jez Jul 9 '13 at 9:28
    
@Jez, surely you mean plural's. –  Joe Jan 15 at 23:45
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When trying to figure if you should use the question mark in the middle of the sentence, the best way is to say it out and see if it makes sense or sound correct. Most of the times this can be very helpful. The sentence "Would you like the drapes to be white? Or perhaps something off-white?" sounds continuous therefore you would simply write "Would you like the drapes to be white Or perhaps something off-white?". one of the punctuation rules is that when you use or you don't add a comma before it.

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I don't think the "does it make sense or sound correct" measure is very useful to foreigners learning English. What you suggest is only really helpful to people whose English is already good. Your suggested wording has a capital letter in the middle, without any preceding punctuation - this is just poor grammar. I have downvoted your answer because I see nothing worthwhile in it. Sorry. –  user16269 Apr 4 '12 at 11:41
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