He worried--why X; what will happen if Y?

It seems that this construction expresses the idea best, but it creates a few punctuation questions.

Should the first semicolon be question-mark? Is there also a past-present tense shift issue in the above?

Should W in why and what be capitalized? (typically one doesn't capitalize after dash but here dash introduces two sentences)

Here are some variations that illustrate the issue with 2 sentences that follow emdash and are supposed to connected to the clause before the emdash.

He worried--why X? What will happen if Y?

He worried--why X? what will happen if Y? (incorrect: can't have smallcase following '?')

He worried--Why X? What will happen if Y? (incorrect: can't have capitalcase following '--')

He worried--why X; what will happen if Y? (this can perhaps be a good way to express connecting the 2 sentences to the dash)

He worried--why X; What will happen if Y? (incorrect: can't have capital following semicolon)

Some have suggested using ':' instead of dash '--'. It's perhaps a more convenient option as rules regarding capitalization are more clearly defined for ':' but it doesn't fit in the context of where this expression is needed.

He worried: Why X; What will happen if Y? (this is perfectly acceptable. One can certainly capitalize right after colon if it begins a sentence. However as said earlier, this is ':' doesn't fit the context)

  • Any answer specifically addressing the question? While spectras has been useful, OP asks a question regarding capitlization after dash and question-mark before semicolon that haven't been addressed in this discussion.
    – Joe Black
    Commented Dec 28, 2014 at 1:16

1 Answer 1


Normally, direct speech should be quoted. But, as pointed out by Edwin Ashworth, thought are somewhat of an edge case so you may choose:

  • either process it as direct speech, and quote it (you are quoting your character).
  • or simply include it within the normal rhythm of the text.


He worried: “Why X; what will happen if Y?”

  • You quote a full sentence, so it takes a capital.
  • You quote a full sentence, so usually you keep the ? inside the quotes.
  • Semicolon is fine. A bit unusual, but correct.
  • You do not normally use dashes for direct speech in English, but quotation marks.
  • You may choose single quotes over double quotes. One usually finds the former in British conventions and the latter in American conventions, but it does not matter as long as your are consistent.
  • Some authors do use dashes in modern writings though. It is often considered bad style. Anyway, when they do so, it always starts a new paragraph, like this:

He worried:

― Why X; what will happen if Y?

Notice the long dash in that case: ― (unicode U+2015), not - (minus).

Keep in mind that this is borrowed from foreign languages, and as such it does not follow the usual rules for dashes in English. In proper English, dashes are only used for interruptions in a sentence: marking a pause, introducing a subsidiary idea, etc.

Including in normal rhythm:

He worried: why X… what will happen if Y?

He worried: why X? what will happen if Y?

If I chose it not to be a quote, I would not put capital letters either, for it is no longer an independent sentence. But according to Edwin Ashworth you can get away with capitals too.

For reference, see this pretty thorough punctuation guide.

  • 1
    In the context, it is not a quote. Using the sentence in the original post, there are rules that suggest no capitals after dash (though ok after colon in some usages). So, second example in your post can't be capital. How about: He worried--why X? What will happen if Y?
    – Joe Black
    Commented Dec 22, 2014 at 4:09
  • Edited the answer to answer your comment.
    – spectras
    Commented Dec 22, 2014 at 4:22
  • 1
    AmE style could be very different from other styles in this case. In AmE there is no capitals after emdash. It looks like the longdash you are referring to is an emdash. You can certainly use emdash here in place of colon. It's a bit more informal than colon. But I am not sure if I would use a capital in the sentence after emdash and not use it in the second one, which is also supposed to be connected to the expression before emdash. If you're using capitals you need to go: He worried-- Why X? What will happen if Y?
    – Joe Black
    Commented Dec 22, 2014 at 4:33
  • 2
    The following comments are from Grammar.ccc.commnet: 'In reporting "silent speech"—noting that language is "said," but internally and not spoken out loud—writers are on their own. Writers can put quotation marks around it or not: • Oh, what a beautiful morning, Curly said to himself. • "Oh, what a beautiful morning!" Curly said to himself. Some writers will set such unspoken language in italics or indent it in order to set it off from other "regular" language....' Commented Dec 22, 2014 at 8:47
  • 1
    @Joe Black I'd not use dashes here myself. For greater cohesion while still showing the development of thoughts: He worried: Why X ... and what will happen if Y? // For greater abruptness: He worried: Why X? What will happen if Y? You can find commentators happy with capitalised short sentences / sentence substitutes after colons. I'm afraid the term 'proper English' is used far too often as a rubber stamp for 'the set of rules generally (/I was) taught 50 years ago, and which I believe shouldn't ever change'. Commented Dec 22, 2014 at 9:18

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.