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I am writing an academic report and I am trying to figure out how to punctuate the following:

The previous results cannot provide an answer to questions like, what is the probability of X given Y and Z ?, because the precise correlations between the variables are still unknown.

My questions are:

  • Should I use italics for the question, wrap it with quotes or not use any indication on it?
  • Should I put a question mark at the end of it?
  • Do I need commas before and after the question?

I have read the answers to this related question: How to puncutuate when using self imposed questions in a declarative sentence. However, I'm not sure this is the same case, as it is not really an internal though but more like an open question to the reader.

Reformulations of the sentence are also welcome.

PD: I'll kind of abuse the question here, but just checking, that usage of regular font within italicized text to emphasize the hypothetical variable names is ok, right?

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    There is no question. "what is ... and Z" is a "thing" referenced by 'questions like' as far as the structure of the sentence is concerned, just drop it. You may need no question-mark. Rephrasing suggestions are off-topic I'm afraid. – Kris Aug 19 '14 at 9:43
  • What would 'precise correlations' be? Wouldn't the next set of relevant data prove that they weren't 'precise'? – Edwin Ashworth Aug 19 '14 at 9:46
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    Kris -- what are you talking about? the question is: "When you quote a whole sentence (specifically a question) in a sentence, how do you punctuate?" Couldn't be clearer. it's a great question (and I don't know the answer!) – Fattie Aug 19 '14 at 10:25
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    "usage of regular font within italicized text to emphasize the hypothetical variable names is ok, right" tough one! purely FTR I would keep it all italic. (BTW they are not hypothetical. :) ) – Fattie Aug 19 '14 at 10:26
  • @EdwinAshworth Actually the end of the sentence in my text is a little bit different, I simplified here. – jdehesa Aug 19 '14 at 11:05
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(1) Is it necessary to capitalise 'what'?

I believe the following is from Aarhus University (but sadly can't link); while the example is slightly different, only a prescriptivist would argue that the reason for choosing not to use the capital does not apply equally here – there's no confusion about where the question starts if it's put in italics:

In American English, quoting from written texts is done in almost exactly the same way as speech...

The report states that "all accidents are avoidable," and suggests that safety officers should be "better trained."

Note that although 'all accidents are avoidable' might have been the beginning of a sentence, no capital letter is used if this is more natural for the flow of the text.

(2) Is a question mark necessary here?

Wiki has:

Note the point of using a question mark. The primary purpose of a question mark is to indicate that the sentence is a question. It's also useful for demonstrating surprise, skepticism, uncertainty, and the unknown.

Here, the question is delimited adequately by italics if used, and identified as a question by actually being given as one. However, I see no reason not to use the question mark here: it serves the further function of signalling a pause for the reader. I wouldn't double-punctuate (?,) in this case, as it's best to avoid bloat where not essential – though I wouldn't consider a non-italic comma, or zero punctuation, incorrect in place of the italic question mark.

(3) Are (a) quotation marks, (b) italics mandatory?

Writer's Relief gives the wise advice:

.3. Some writers use quotation marks to set off thoughts, but this can get complicated, especially when thoughts and spoken dialogue are mixed.

.2. Another useful technique is to use italics to format thoughts, which is an effective tool when thoughts and spoken dialogue are interspersed. This technique is becoming standard practice among publishers—and for good reason. The different type style makes it quite clear when a person is thinking versus speaking aloud.

Since the question is hypothetically framed here, I'd choose what I also consider the clearer option, italics rather than inverted commas.

(4) Is a comma (/colon ...) necessary before the 'quote' / exemplar?

This has been discussed before; modern practice allows a choice of the punctuation considered most suitable in any given case (among the comma, the colon, or zero punctuation).

I'd choose:

The previous results cannot provide an answer to questions like what is the probability of X given Y and Z because the correlations between the variables have still not been estimated to a sufficient degree of accuracy.

Unless the people who decided whether or not my work was acceptable had different views on English. But happily having to conform to arbitrarily applied styles is not a major consideration here.

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In my opinion, you are "simply" dealing with nothing more than a sentence - that is to say, just as with a spoken quote - within a sentence.

What is the correct punctuation when quoting a question in the middle of a larger sentence?

IMO the answer is just:

The previous results cannot provide an answer to questions like, "What is the probability of X given Y and Z?" because the precise correlations between the variables are still unknown.

So, exactly the same rules apply as a simple speech-like example such as:

In many cultures, "How are you?" is often asked at the beginning of a conversation.

I feel you just should not use italics for Illustrative Sentences. I feel Illustrative Sentences should simply be treated, exactly as quoted speech. (Much as, say, I thought... should be treated as quoted speech.) In short, you are "saying" a sentence, and that's that.

Italics and bold are for emphasis and similar uses: quote marks exist to, well, quote things, so you should use them for any purpose that is close to that purpose.

Regarding the issue in quoted speech that ends with a query do you then have a comma, I believe that is well-covered on this site.

  • does that do it for you, javi ? I really feel that is the best approach! – Fattie Aug 19 '14 at 14:37
  • I appreciate your answer and I think you have a point with the example you provided. However, I marked Edwin's answer as accepted for being somewhat fuller, but now I have arguments for both options. Thanks. – jdehesa Aug 20 '14 at 7:57
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    I agree you should tick Evan's answer since it is very informative. However you should not use italics or bold. They are for emphasis. You're quoting a sentence so .. quote it! easy – Fattie Aug 20 '14 at 8:09

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