I'm trying to figure out where should I place an iterrogation mark in the sentence below. First, what I want to say:

Does X mean X, or does it mean Y? As we talked before about X meaning Y.

And here is the way I'd like to write it:

Does X mean X, or does it mean Y -- as we talked before?

Although I write things that way very often, I'm not sure this grammatical construction is allowed. Is the ? correctly placed (gramatically, I mean), or should I write it differently? This way looks very strange to me:

Does X mean X, or does it mean Y? -- as we talked before.

but sometimes seems more correct than the first one. Any references on where to place an interrogation mark while writing a question with a dashed-comment?

P.S.: I'm not a native english speaker, yet I actually do not know the answer for this question neither in english nor in portuguese (my native language).

  • You may find some useful information here: english.stackexchange.com/questions/90120/…, although I think really you should rewrite your sentence instead. – Kit Z. Fox Jan 28 '14 at 0:44
  • This is a simple sentence, which could as well accept that "comment" parenthesized, instead of dashed. E.g., Does X mean X, or does it mean Y (as we talked before)?. I just happen to like dashes, and I'd like to know whether interrogative sentences with dashed comments were grammatically correct, and how exactly should be the writing of such sentences w.r.t. the grammatical construction. – Rubens Jan 28 '14 at 0:55
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    The verb talked is completely non-standard in this context, and talked about isn't really much better. It needs to be replaced with something like agreed or discussed, depending on the outcome of that earlier interaction. – FumbleFingers Jan 28 '14 at 2:03
  • @FumbleFingers +1 Thanks for the information on the usage of talk. I really did not know that -- and it's surely very useful for me. Regarding the usage of dashed-comments inside questions, do you know any grammatical rule which states the proper way to write a sentence that uses both of those things? – Rubens Jan 28 '14 at 2:09
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    @ Rubens: I don't have much interest in deciding between different credible punctuations for informal contexts like this. Choose a style guide and follow their suggestions if it's important to you. You're fretting about what I would consider a minor/irrelevant issue of punctuation, but ignoring the all-important matter of saying clearly what you actually mean. As yet, I've no idea whether your prior talk was about "whether X means X or Y", or just "whether X means Y". Nor do I know whether you reached a conclusion then. Communicate first, punctuate later, I say. – FumbleFingers Jan 28 '14 at 2:30

Thank you for that. I had never come across an interrobang before. What a marvelous weapon and what a splendid name it has. If I am right, it is a combination of question and exclamation marks.

Well the bad news is that English does not use an interrobang and you should consider yourself blessed to have one in Portuguese. I have often felt the need for one, and short of putting both ( ?!) have just had to dispense with the exclamation!

Now as regards question marks mid-sentence, I am one person who does use them, (though I know some don't) but usually only where I am including a question quotation within a sentence. E.g., 'Did Jack and Jill go up the hill?', was a coded question that the secret agents were all given.

As regards your text, in English we use just one dash, not two as a punctuation mark.

And my way of asking it would be as follows:

'As regards our conversation the other day, does X mean X or does it mean Y?'

  • I know how upsetting it is when one makes edits that change much of the meaning of a question, and I'm very sorry for doing it now. I actually just said interrobang accidentaly, for I've read it somewhere and thought it was a synonym for interrogation mark. What I'm actually looking for as an answer is whether I place the ? after the dashed-comment or before it. (Here I'm naming dashed-comment the commentary I'm adding after the --). I also guess interrobangs are only allowed in spanish -- at least they're not legal in portuguese. – Rubens Jan 28 '14 at 0:35
  • I'm not averse to using double punctuation where I think it clarifies, but I think the comma is just prescriptive superfluousness in " 'Did Jack and Jill go up the hill?', was a coded question . . .". The terminal inverted comma marks the end of quote quite adequately. – Edwin Ashworth Jan 28 '14 at 6:40
  • I was happy to learn, even if it was by mistake, the term "interrobang". I have seen in plenty of informal writing. I use it sometimes, but I seldom write anything formal. I am not sure though, if it should be "?!" or "!?". Since it's informal, it probably doesn't matter, but somehow the first looks better to me. – TecBrat Jan 28 '14 at 11:31

I'm with @WS2, I want an interrobang in English. Today. Right now.

I have never seen an em dash used in an interrogative in this manner. I think you have two options.

First, consider your need of an em dash. For me, an em dash is an interruption in thought or an interruption of speaker. I don't think your sentence calls for either.

You could write it simply,

Does X mean X, or does it mean Y as we discussed earlier?

Or even better, take @WS2's construction.

This rids us of the problem entirely. I just can't see the case for adding any sort of break when one isn't needed.

But, if you insist on using a dash, I would opt for your construction. I have no precedence to draw upon, but I would adapt a rule pushed strongly by the Chicago Manual of Style which essentially says, "if two punctuations compete with each other, select the stronger one." In the second construction you offer, with the ? --, those punctuations appear competing. They need some breathing room. Since the second "thought" as demarcated by the dash is essentially just adding to the sentence, I would place the question mark at the end to encompass the entirety of the thought. The stronger punctuation, the --, then takes its rightful place by pushing that loser question mark to the end.

  • Then I must've been using my dashes inappropriately, since I'm always using them for extra comments -- as I'm doing now. Think I'll have to revisit the usage of dashes in order to understand why I couldn't use it for comments. Edit: what I mean by comment is that little something one may add, which was not actually required, and that I find nicely positioned after a dash. E.g., "as we discussed earlier" is just further (may even useless) information, it's not actually part of the meaning of the question. – Rubens Jan 28 '14 at 1:00
  • @Rubens I don't think anyone would make a big deal about using them in that manner. I've always demarcated additional comments with commas or parentheses to reserve dashes for actual breaks in thought. Your audience will likely know what you mean by using the dashes. – emsoff Jan 28 '14 at 1:09
  • I thank you all very much for your patience, but although I understand I could simply change the structure of the sentence, I'd love to know whether or not some construction of that kind is allowed, and what exactly should be the structure of a sentence that mixes questions and dashed-comments. Once again, I'm very thankful for all the promptness in helping me. – Rubens Jan 28 '14 at 1:13
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    @Rubens You're very welcome! For me the determinant is always audience. Even if someone does answer here with a "rule," I can't imagine it would be so strictly enforced that someone would call you on it. – emsoff Jan 28 '14 at 1:17
  • I'm sure Saramago thought the same -- as well as I bet you've read and liked some of his work! :) – Rubens Jan 28 '14 at 1:18

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