Suppose there is a sentence in question form, like the one appearing below:

Where do you belong to?

Now, if a speaker refers to that question, he will frame another sentence and will place the question in the quotation marks in that sentence, like what is appearing below:

They said, "Where do you belong to?"

Now, if the speaker wants to convert this sentence too in question form, he will put the original question in another question, like what is appearing below:

What did they mean by saying "Where do you belong to?"

Now, if the speaker wants to rephrase this sentence, it would become as follows:

By saying "Where do you belong to?" what did they mean?

My question is how the 4th sentence is to be punctuated. It has two question marks in it. Does the sentence correctly take two question marks? If so, why will the 3rd sentence not take two question marks − one, just before the closing inverted commas and, the second, just after those commas? The 4th sentence and the 3rd sentence are all same, except being a bit different in placement of the words. Will they take two different sets of punctuation marks?

  • Very good question. My take would be yes, the fourth example with the two question marks is correctly punctuated, though the participle dangles. As for the third, I would say that the question mark inside the closing quotation marks has in effect swallowed the one that logically should follow after, much as the first question mark in your third example has swallowed the comma we might otherwise expect before what there--or much as a period might swallow the comma or dash that would otherwise close a parenthesis at the end of the sentence, as here. Dec 19 '15 at 18:47
  • FWIW, I'm pretty sure this question is a duplicate, but I don't have time to search for it now.
    – Drew
    Dec 19 '15 at 18:57
  • @Drew I don't think "internal" quoted questions are a duplicate, although I may be wrong.
    – Andrew Leach
    Dec 19 '15 at 19:04
  • @AndrewLeach: OK, good. (Trying to find duplicates always frustrates me. I'm not a big fan of SE search - but probably I haven't spent enough time trying to master it.)
    – Drew
    Dec 19 '15 at 19:07

One clue is how this is said. The question mark is a written indication of spoken intonation.

The quoted question is not phrased as a question, with rising intonation. It's said as though its punctuation is

By saying "Where do you belong to," what did they mean?

and there is no reason not to punctuate it that way.

This punctuation reduces the importance of the quoted question. You are not asking that question; you are asking "What did they mean?" It's that sentence which gets the question intonation which the question mark represents.

It can be rationalised, if a rule is wanted, by saying that where a quote runs on into the rest of the sentence, any punctuation at the end of the quote is generally a comma. It's only not a comma where the spoken intonation indicates that it's not.

This is how a question mark can appear in a sentence like

What did they mean by saying "Where do you belong to?"

Both the "inner" question and the "outer" question end in the same place, and both need a question mark. In this case, there's a convention that punctuation is not duplicated and it's the inner question which prevails. Again, how that sentence is spoken provides a clue because the intonation of belong to is the same no matter where the question mark is placed (or even how many there are):

What did they mean by saying "Where do you belong to?"
What did they mean by saying "Where do you belong to?"?
What did they mean by saying "Where do you belong to"?

All of those sentences are pronounced the same, but only the first really makes sense visually, which is where the convention comes in.

If you do in fact pronounce the first and third differently, then you get to decide which you use. It's entirely possible that the pronunciation is context-dependent, in which case the punctuation is, too.

I suppose the same goes for a quoted question in the middle of a sentence. If you pronounce your sentence with a question intonation on the quoted question itself as well as the entire thing, then it may be appropriate to put a question mark there.

  • FWIW: I suggest that the convention of putting punctuation for the sentence inside the quotation (at the end) is slipping, at least in technical documentation - and for good reason. To be precise technically, quoted text needs to be exact, often even character-for-character. It might be visually more appealing (appears to be easier to understand), but it is not the case (IMO) that "only the first makes sense visually", i.e., that the traditional rule makes for more clarity.
    – Drew
    Dec 19 '15 at 19:14
  • @Drew But in that case it would probably be said that way too.
    – Andrew Leach
    Dec 19 '15 at 19:17
  • Maybe so; dunno - if the quoted text were said at all. I'm only saying that the traditional approach is not very precise, and that because details sometimes matter, technical doc is leading us away from it, at least in some areas.
    – Drew
    Dec 19 '15 at 21:44
  • Punctuation in written language does not and need not always correspond to the rhythms and intonations of spoken language. Commas demarcating vocatives, for instance, are almost never omitted in writing, but you would have a decidedly hard time inferring them from spoken language. Dec 20 '15 at 1:50

Two question marks is correct here: By saying "Where do you belong to?" what did they mean? The question mark embedded in the third-sentence question functions as the terminal punctuation for that sentence, so you have punctuated it correctly. Your fourth sentence is correctly punctuated, too. Nice job!😊

Source: The Gregg Reference Manual, Tribute Edition

At the end of a sentence, an exclamation point goes inside the closing quotation mark when it applies only to the quoted material.

His first question was, "How long have you worked here?" (Quoted question at the end of a statement.)

Garland still ends every sales meeting by shouting, "Go get 'em!" (Quoted exclamation at the end of a statement.)

At the end of a sentence, a question mark or an exclamation point goes outside the closing quotation mark when it applies to the entire sentence.

When will she say, for a change, "You did a nice job on that"? (Quoted statement at the end of a question.)

Stop saying "Don't worry"! (Quoted statement at the end of an exclamation.)

Did Billy Wilder actually say that the composer had "Van Gogh's ear for music"? (Quoted phrase at the end of a question.)

I can't believe anyone in their real-estate agency could have approved an ad containing a reference to "floorless workmanship"! (Quoted phrase at the end of an exclamation.)

If a sentence ends with quoted material and both the sentence and the quoted material require the same mark of punctuation, use only one mark – the one that comes first.

Have you seen the advertisement that starts, "Why pay more?" (Quoted question at the end of a question.) Not: . . . "Why pay more?"?

Have you had a chance to read "Who Pays the Bill?" (Not: . . . "Who Pays the Bill?"?)

Let's not panic and yell "Fire!" (Quoted exclamation at the end of an exclamation.)

Did you say, "I'll help out"? Why did Mark ask, "Will Joe be there?"

Who yelled, "Watch out!" (Not: Who yelled "Watch out!"?)

I thought her letter said she would arrive "at 10 p.m." (Not: . . . "at 10 p.m .".)

Hope this helps! 😊

  • I will research "why" this is correct in my Gregg Reference Manual and will post it here for you in a few. I'm very glad to help!😊 Dec 19 '15 at 19:02
  • I just posted. See GRM's info above, which has now been included with my answer. Dec 19 '15 at 21:20

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

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