I'd like suggestions to punctuate, or if necessary, reword the following sentence, so as to give its explicit meaning, but without losing its feel.

I encourage thought and discussion provoking questions by students.

I'd like to leave it as is, and just punctuate it if possible.

The meaning I want is "I encourage students to ask questions which provoke thought and discussion".

I'm concerned that as is, it could be read as "I encourage thought and discussion, which will provoke questions by students".


It seems even in my attempt to be explicit, I was still ambiguous. I'll try again.

My intended meaning is: "I encourage students to ask questions which provoke both thought and discussion".

  • 1
    To make a written sentence unambiguous, say it out loud. You'll have to settle on one pattern for rhythm and intonation, and that will disambiguate. There are several ways to intone the sentence, depending on which constituents the speaker chooses to link together, and their differences are all audible. Virtually all ambiguity occurs in writing only. Aug 24, 2015 at 16:43
  • @John: I'm not sure it's even possible to force the unambiguous interpretation OP intends in normal speech. The best I can think of is to leave an exaggerated pause after thought if you want to unambiguously indicate that you don't want that word to apply to provoking. But if that's what you do want, I don't see how you can make it crystal clear that you're "deleting" the first -provoking. As you've pointed out yourself before, in the "space" of spoken forms, no-one can hear you hyphenate, apostrophize, etc. Aug 24, 2015 at 16:58
  • _I enCOURage thotndiscushnprvoknQUEShnz by STUdents. Aug 24, 2015 at 17:08
  • @John: Point taken, ty! I'm afraid I was just trying things on for size using the "voice in my head" - which apparently is better at exaggerated pauses and stress. It's only when you "spell it out" with the assistance of capitalization forcing the stress to be elsewhere AND wordsrunningtogether that I see (hear? :) how you do it! Aug 24, 2015 at 17:32

8 Answers 8


Such questions are usually hyphenated as thought-provoking questions, and if you're going to delete elements in conjoined multiple consecutive xxx-provoking usages like this, standard practice is to at least repeat the hyphen...

I encourage thought- and discussion-provoking questions by students.

Personally I would not advise reversing the order of thought and discussion here. The far stronger associations of the idiomatically commonplace usage linked to above can easily survive being interrupted by and discussion-, but discussion-provoking questions is relatively speaking such a rare collocation it would end up being "drowned out" (particularly if we consider the spoken context, where no-one can hear the hyphen that's supposed to resolve the very ambiguity OP seeks to avoid).

EDIT: Noting @jxh's comment below (it seems odd to invent such a usage), and the fact that @Janus's "supporting" example involves compounds which wouldn't normally be hyphenated anyway, here's a link to CMOS (Chicago Manual of Style) endorsing a group of eight- to ten-year-olds, which I think is essentially the same construction. (i.e. - I didn't "invent" it).

  • Your assumption here is that thought and discussion both qualify provoking. Rather than adopt your hernia-inducing punctuation, I would alter the syntax to say more-or-less the same thing in a different way. Of course, one possibility is that the meaning is I encourage thought, and discussion-provoking questions.
    – WS2
    Aug 24, 2015 at 16:40
  • 2
    @WS2: I don't see anything "[abreaction- or] hernia-inducing" about the usage. Granted, there are potentially at least three different interpretations (1: encourage discussion and thought, where both activities give rise to questions; 2: encourage both discussion-provoking questions and thought; 3: encourage questions which provoke either or both of thought and discussion). But #2 seems unlikely, to say the least, so I assume the disambiguation OP seeks is between #1 and #3 - which is easily done with just a couple of hyphens. Aug 24, 2015 at 16:49
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    @WS2 I really don't think you can blame your hernia on Fumble’s punctuation here. It's perfectly standard and, I would say, the only punctuation that makes any sense here. It's really not that different from talking about, say, mono- and ditransitive verbs, except the fully written-out compound there is closed, not hyphenated. Aug 24, 2015 at 17:32
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    @WS2, "... thought and discussion both qualify provoking" I agree that is probably what the OP meant, but I think your rewrite as "I encourage thought, and discussion-provoking questions by students" makes "thought" stand on its own. That seems odd in the context of the sentence, since thought without action has no external effects, even though encouraging students to think is clearly a good idea. I think the problem with the sentence is that the word "thought" is not an adjective. "I encourage thoughtful and discussion provoking questions by students" needs no punctuation.
    – alephzero
    Aug 24, 2015 at 19:22
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    @alephzero The phrases "thoughtful questions" and "thought provoking questions" mean different things. The first implies thought on the part of the questioner before asking, while the latter implies thought by the people hearing it.
    – R.M.
    Aug 24, 2015 at 23:44

I would use thought-provoking, so I would interchange discussion and thought:

I encourage discussion and thought-provoking questions by students.

You are trying to imply discussion-provoking, which isn't idiomatic and is causing the confusion.

My suggestion is intentionally ambiguous, because I personally feel students should be permitted to initiate a discussion free from the constraint of needing to phrase it in the form of a question. If you insist that only questions are allowed to be the initiators of discussion, then I would reword:

I encourage students to ask thought-provoking questions that promote discussion.

  • 1
    Better to make the construction parallel: I encourage students to ask questions that provoke thought and prompt discussion.
    – deadrat
    Aug 24, 2015 at 19:29
  • @deadrat: I feel attempting a parallel construction makes the sentence appear artificial and hollow. But, I changed the wording to avoid the parallel issue.
    – jxh
    Aug 24, 2015 at 23:59
  • I try not to gainsay people's declarations of how they feel, and I'll note in passing that my suggestion isn't an attempt at parallel construction, but rather one of those. Perhaps it would help if I knew what you meant by "artificial and hollow." Stilted and insincere?
    – deadrat
    Aug 25, 2015 at 0:08
  • @deadrat: Aye (caramba).
    – jxh
    Aug 25, 2015 at 0:09
  • I will guess that the "Aye" is a statement of agreement. The expression is "¡Ay, caramba!" which is not. So I"m left with not really knowing what you mean let alone how parallel grammatical construction indicates the insincerity of an offer. You asked for advice on punctuation, so I'm assuming your statement is written rather than spoken.
    – deadrat
    Aug 25, 2015 at 0:55

One of the key requirements stated by the OP was that he/she wanted to encourage questions that provoked both thought and discussion. Unfortunately, there is no existing punctuation to enforce this requirement. In printed form we can bolden the words, as I have here and emphasise them in speech, but this is not really punctuation. In practice, we have to use the word 'both' to convey this fact. I would suggest:

I encourage questions by students that provoke both thought and discussion.


Do you really intend to say that you only encourage a question if it provokes both thought and discussion? Fumblefingers' answer is the standard way to elide a repeated part of a hyphenated expression, so

I encourage thought- and discussion-provoking questions by students

means the same as

I encourage thought-provoking and discussion-provoking questions by students.

But this would normally be interpreted as encouraging questions which provoke thought or discussion (or both). To stress that both are required I would hyphenate the whole thing as a single compound adjective:

I encourage thought-and-discussion-provoking questions by students.


Why not simply rearrange the order?

I encourage questions by students, provoking thought and discussion.

  • -1 because OP specifically says he would like to leave it as is, and just punctuate it if possible. By implication, he doesn't want to rearrange the order (so for effectively the same reason I think @jxh has addressed a question that wasn't actually asked). Aug 24, 2015 at 17:38
  • @FumbleFingers: While asker did specify a preference for punctuation changes only, the question did allow for word rearrangement. And while I didn't say why I didn't suggest a punctuation change, I did say why I answered with a rearrangement.
    – jxh
    Aug 24, 2015 at 18:27
  • Fair enough. I hadn't really registered OP's point before the sample text (or if necessary, reword). I was just noting the stuff after the example. Aug 24, 2015 at 19:39

The serial comma:

I encourage thought, and discussion provoking questions by students.


You want the questions to be both thought-provoking and discussion-provoking, you can be explicit and go with:

I encourage thought-provoking and discussion-provoking questions by students.


I encourage thought and discussion provoking questions by students.

I'd like to leave it as is, and just punctuate it if possible.

I think that you can leave it that way. It's clear what it means. If you wanted to separate out 'thought' then you would have to write something like,

I encourage thought, and discussion-provoking questions, by students.

My Answer

The original version is perfectly fine.

Your Answer

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