Is it ever correct to have a space before a question or exclamation mark? is affirming what I always use, but now some translators at my office said that I always need a space before. I am sure they are French or something but before I answer them, I would like to see some British source confirming it.

UPDATE: No, Wikipedia is not authoritative unless it has a link to a publication that is. The people I need to correct are likely native English speakers who sat too long next to French translators or something. I need some heavy tome to throw at them :)

UPDATE: The translators ate their words. All is well in the world.

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    Even in Britain it is considered wrong to put a space before a question mark (or other sentence-terminating punctuation). I am of course authoritative ;-) – psmears Feb 24 '11 at 11:03
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    What do you mean, with authoritative? In English there isn't the equivalent of the Académie française. – kiamlaluno Feb 24 '11 at 11:16
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    @kiamlaluno: I would assume he means "a source that is widely considered complete and correct, and therefore respected" - i.e. even though there's nothing that has the authority to define the language, there are many sources that people are willing to accept to settle arguments. Of course, the problem with this definition of "authoritative" is that there can be multiple such sources, and they can disagree :-) – psmears Feb 24 '11 at 11:24
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    One option could be to show them how the question mark is used in a couple of well-respected publications. I think that this question about a space before a question mark may be considered so basic that most style guides will probably not address it. I looked at the style guide of The Economist, and it has nothing to say about this. – Tragicomic Feb 24 '11 at 12:56
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    The only authoritative book I have around here is the "Brief English Handbook", and it doesn't mention the issue. I think most such manuals consider "no space before the punctuation" to be so blindingly obvious that it doesn't occur to them to mention it. – Marthaª Feb 24 '11 at 14:41

As far as authority goes, I'd put my money with Fowler's Modern English Usage. In the first edition, Fowler uses spaces before colons, semicolons, question marks, and exclamation marks, but not before full stops or commas. In the second edition, edited by Gowers, none of these stops are preceded by a space any more. The third edition by Burchfield (another authority in the field) doesn't have them either.

Frankly spaces do look a bit old fashioned to me. My advice would be to not use spaces any more; however, if you should decide to use them after all, it would still be correct—just uncommon.

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    That is more like it +1. I found a page for the question mark and although there is no mentioning of space, the entry has no spaces before any of the question marks – mplungjan Feb 24 '11 at 15:09
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    @mplungjan: Then you must have found a page from the 2nd or 3rd edition. The 1st edition was published before the War. – Cerberus_Reinstate_Monica Feb 24 '11 at 15:13
  • +1. This also shows up the good point that in some older English typesetting, the space actually was used. – PLL Feb 24 '11 at 16:40
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    @mplungjan - Slightly confused. While Fowler is an excellent reference, I gather he too is silent on the issue, since we only have examples to go on. What you're actually accepting is Oxford Press's typography style guide. Potentially you could pick up a French translation and find all the question marks with spaces before them. If you're happy to accept examples as 'authoritative', why didn't you consult a dictionary? – gpr Feb 25 '11 at 11:51
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    @Cerberus - I also think it's unlikely that Fowler would have allowed dodgy typesetting, but I don't think we should divine a rule from the example of the publication, any more than we could extrapolate a rule about e.g. the positioning of page numbers from what's used in his book. However, I do think it's safe to use examples from a number of authoritative language resources, and in this instance every dictionary I've looked in (including OED, also published by OUP) has given examples of question marks with no spaces. Such a unanimity speaks for itself. – gpr Feb 26 '11 at 6:57

This appears to be a typesetting question, more than a usage one. Terminal punctuation is not set off with spaces in English because it is, well, "terminal" punctuation. You cannot terminate a space.

As a question of typesetting, however, a designer might use spacing — particularly in a title or such — to get a particular look.

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    I do not care about type setting. If I have to add a  ? to all French questions to stop the floating ? to go to the next line, so be it. But it will be a cold day in hell before I will do it in English unless they can prove otherwise. – mplungjan Feb 24 '11 at 14:35
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    Unfortunately, logical arguments (“You cannot terminate a space.”) are rarely the answer to questions like this! If this were the reason, surely it would apply in French as well? (And also to older English typesetting, where it was used.) And I’m sure someone brought up with spaces before them would be able to suggest plenty of “logical” explanations for that convention too. This is really just a matter of conventions. – PLL Feb 24 '11 at 16:38

This is just hear-say (in a way):

My father in his day was a "layout artist" - these were the people that did all the text and image layouts of books and newspapers, by cutting out photos and text columns and snippets (sometimes even single letters) and very carefully, and very precisely pasting them onto a board to be photographed and then printed (late 1960's onward).

Now my father learned his craft on a lead type printing press (in the days they still used lead type!) and he said the space before punctuation was often added when the last letter of the sentence would have crowded the punctuation mark, due to the letter's size or shape, and depending on the font used. Also, they used half or third spaces usually, not full spaces.

This was in Switzerland, so it might not fit the British reason why Fowler's pre-war Modern English Usage uses spaces before the question mark, although as they used lead type then to print books (just as my father had), it may well be.

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I would suggest that the Oxford Style Manual and the Times Manual of Style would likely be sufficiently authoritative for your purposes.

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Is Wikipedia authoritative enough?


It clearly mentions the French usage of having a space before the question mark - unhappily without reference.

However this French wiki page explicitly states that French typography requires a space before a question mark, but other typographies 'American in particular' omit a space:

De nombreuses autres (américaine, en particulier) ne mettent aucune espace avant ces signes.

That wiki page has a number of references.

All of the examples on this Oxford Dictionaries online page omit a space before, but other than that, the only references I can find to spacing in English are on sites aimed at teaching English as a foreign language, e.g. this German one, this about.com page comparing English and French punctuation, and this EnglishClub page.

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  • No it is not. I read the same and saw the [Citation needed] and I am sure that it is the reason for the insistence of these people - they most likely hang around the French translators too :| – mplungjan Feb 24 '11 at 14:31
  • Some more references added – gpr Feb 24 '11 at 22:09

Do you trust Microsoft? When you type a question in Microsoft Word and leave a space before the question mark. It says you have a grammar mistake and puts a green line under it. I know you're looking for a book or something though.

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In older typography, it was the practice of many printers to put a narrow space before a colon, semicolon, question mark, or exclamation point. As someone has pointed out above, this was the practice followed in Fowler's Modern English Usage (that is, there are narrow spaces before these marks in the book; Fowler did not discuss this or other typographical issues).

The Internet provides many sources saying that such use of spaces is the French standard and is incorrect in English. This is not a historically-informed assertion. I suspect that the typewriter is responsible for the omission of spaces before all punctuation marks; the typewriter provided only the full space, which looks a bit awkward in front of a colon or interrogation point, so people just omitted them. In any event, these spaces are seldom seen nowadays, but of you want to "plenk" (in German typography, the verb for the insertion of such spaces is plenken), you should not let anyone intimidate you with a claim that it is "incorrect." Just remember, if you composing on a word processor, to use a non-breaking space and to use font > character spacing > spacing to limit the space to 1.5 or 2 points.

In other words, plenk or not, as you please.

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  • Was it the practice of printers to insert space, or was it a practice of type foundries to include the space as part of the type-piece containing such marks? – supercat Apr 9 '15 at 0:04

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