In British English, where should one place the question mark in the following sentence?

Was it true that "the food was all gone" (Bloggs, 2013, p. 287)

Inside the quotation marks, after them, or even (ugh!) after the brackets? I've come across all three in 'reputable' sources.


  • Welcome to ELU! Because of the way contributions are listed for display it would be helpful if your heading contained a more substantial and specific version of your question. Meanwhile, I hope you enjoy your experience here, and find ways to engage with many more users. – Captain Cranium Mar 18 '16 at 11:31
  • I don't think it's a duplicate as my quotation isn't a question. I've made my heading more specific as advised. Thanks for the responses and suggestions. Steve, – Steve Parker Mar 18 '16 at 12:05
  • I'm no punctuation goddess, but this seems easy to resolve. The question mark belongs to the query was it true?. The direct quote: "the food was all gone" is not a question and as such the question mark should never go within the quotation/speech marks but outside. Was it true that "the food was all gone"? – Mari-Lou A Mar 18 '16 at 19:47

There are two issues here, both probably individually simple, for different reasons. It appears that ‘the food was all gone’ is something that Bloggs says, and that your full example is questioning Bloggs’s accuracy.

In fact the question mark itself turns out to be something of a red herring. There is nothing about this example involving a question that helps to resolve it, and in the end there is also a case for disposing of the question entirely.

First, there is no reason to place a question mark within your quotation marks. Bloggs simply is not asking a question, and it would be academically fraudulent (misrepresenting the original) to insert a question mark as if that had been Bloggs’s intent.

Second, we have a matter of style as prescribed by the venue where you are writing, concerned with referencing at the ends of sentences, regardless of whether nor not any given sentence is a question. Your publisher, university department or whatever will have a preferred style guide for this kind of thing.

My own tweaked form of the MHRA style guide (which allows for considerable latitude if used consistently) would in fact use footnotes (pp58ff), with the footnote number appearing after whatever mark closes the sentence (full stop, question mark, quotation marks, anything). On occasion that can suggest rewriting a sentence so that the footnote mark does not end up separated from its referent by a pileup of punctuation.

I mention that partly as a matter of contrast from your format, which is a form of Harvard referencing. On that basis your suggested inline reference would be fine, and would be inserted within the sentence; i.e. before the question mark. (Liverpool University provides a usefully succinct guide.) That leads to the correct but awkward form:

Was it true that ‘the food was all gone’ (Bloggs, 2013, p. 287)?

That looks horrible. If this were my paper, I would therefore rewrite (including preferred rules about punctuating quotations of complete sentences) to something like:

We must therefore question the accuracy or sufficiency of Bloggs’s ostensibly simple statement that, ‘The food was all gone’ (2013, p. 287).

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  • Thanks for that, CC. I hadn't considered rewriting entire sentences for the sake of the referencing/punctuation; I see that it would work, but it looks as if in many circumstances it might require the prior introduction of Bloggs. Even if that's not necessarily the case, concision is important to me (due to word-count constraints etc), and for that reason I might just have to use the correct, if ugly, option of placing the question mark after the reference where a rewrite to avoid it is difficult or overly lengthy. Thanks again. – Steve Parker Mar 18 '16 at 13:51
  • I completely understand your priorities, and the tension between economy and elegance. From start to finish, my PhD thesis was (among other things) a running battle between wordcount and clarity, hence my reflex to jump on this kind of question! The main aim will always be clarity, of course, so the skill lies in achieving that concisely. Simply shaving words is not in itself a sufficient solution: that will usually just deliver bad writing. Effective writing is a bigger and better matter than that. I am glad that this kind of thing matters to you, and I wish you well in ongoing tussles! – Captain Cranium Mar 18 '16 at 14:24
  • Can you articulate why the question mark after the reference looks horrible, or is it a matter of personal taste? You and the OP agree on this point, but I don't see an intrinsic difference between having a full stop after the reference and having a question mark after the reference. – Lawrence Mar 18 '16 at 15:37
  • @Lawrence It's to do with the point of referencing, which is to help the reader to track down the cited text. There are three elements: the present writer's text, the quoted text, and the citation. Sometimes the act of citation gets everything tangled up. The citation would normally act as a supplementary note, but here it becomes an intrusion that delays the reader's arrival at the question mark... which changes the understanding of the text before the citation... requiring us to backtrack past it, to check... This is a good example of why I prefer footnoting conventions for citation. – Captain Cranium Mar 18 '16 at 15:46
  • @Lawrence It's mainly just good practice in academic writing: avoid constructions that force the reader to do extra work. In this case the construction is complicated by the existence of the present writer's question. Without that, we could just say, 'and Bloggs says that "the food was all gone" (2013, p. 287).' That works fine. (For personal taste I still find inline citations intrusive, however. Footnotes are easy if I want to consult them now, and if not then I can quickly read past footnote numbers. Endnotes are just a pain, especially when collected at the back of the entire book.) – Captain Cranium Mar 18 '16 at 16:02

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