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I'm working on a story, and I find myself faced with something of a quandary.

Specifically, I need to know the proper style for the following:

“I have thousands of them,” the commissioner answered, “but I’ll start with ‘What do you need?’.”

Is it proper form to have both the question mark and period, or should one of them be dropped?

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    One editor's 'proper form' is another's poison-penmanship. As @John Lawler says in the previous post BtG mentions, "Always punctuate in the way that makes sense to you, unless somebody is paying you to do it differently." Here, in order of importance, (1) The additional full stop would not add clarity. The inverted commas compartmentalise clearly. (2) Few people would argue that the question mark (which you have placed correctly) cannot do 'double duty', implying the full stop (even though they are not adjacent). (3) Brits tend to be more tolerant of double punctuation, messy as it can be. – Edwin Ashworth Oct 25 '16 at 9:51
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The Chicago Manual of Style, sixteenth edition (2010), offers the following advice, under the general heading "Multiple Punctuation Marks":

6.118 Periods with question marks or exclamation points. A period (aside from on abbreviating period; see 6.117) never accompanies a question mark or an exclamation point. The latter two marks, being stronger, take precedence over the period. This principle continues to apply when the question mark or exclamation point is part of the title of a work, as in the final example (cf. 6.119).

Their first question was a hard one: "Who is willing to trade oil for water?"

What did she mean when she said, "The foot now wears a different shoe"?

She owned two copies of Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?

The fifteenth edition of Chicago (2003) offers yet another example of this rule in action, at 11.35 (Question marks in block quotations):

The narrator then breaks in: "Imagine Bart's surprise, dear reader, when Emma turned to him and said, contemptuously, 'What "promise"?'"

The reason underlying this preference is *Chicago'*s notion that periods are weaker than question marks and exclamation points, and therefore must give way to them—and indeed vanish altogether in their immediate presence.


A very similar rule appears in The Oxford Guide to Style (2002) in the general section on Quotation marks, under the specific guideline 5.13.2 (Relative placing with other punctuation):

When the requirements of the main sentence and the quotation differ, use the stronger mark. In the examples below the question mark supersedes the weaker full point [period, in U.S. English]:

She was heard to mutter, 'Did you do it?'

Can you verify that John said, 'There is only one key to the room'?

The instances from Oxford that Mick points out in his answer, where an exclamation point and a question mark appear on either side of a close quotation mark, reflect situations where the competing punctuation marks are of equal strength or importance, as the text explains:

When the terminal punctuation of the quoted material and that of the main sentence serve different functions of equal strength or importance, use both:

She had the nerve to ask 'Why are you here?'!

Did he really shout 'Stop thief!'?

Oxford thus takes the view that question marks and exclamation points are of equal strength, whereas question marks (and by logical extension, exclamation points) are stronger than periods. In this respect Oxford and Chicago are in agreement.


From the foregoing guidelines and examples, it seems clear to me that Chicago would endorse this punctuation of your example:

"I have thousands of them," the commissioner answered, "but I'll start with 'What do you need?'"

and that Oxford would endorse this punctuation:

'I have thousands of them,' the commissioner answered, 'but I'll start with "What do you need?"'

Neither style guide would preserve the end-of-sentence period/full point.

  • Ah, okay. This clears things up. I'll delete the full stop. – John H Harris Mar 10 '17 at 4:48
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It looks wrong, and I think it counts as double punctuation. Since the question mark must be inside the inner quotes, you should probably drop the period.

I've checked the Oxford Manual of Style but it doesn't give an example similar to your case. It does say that in the case of double punctuation at the end of a sentence, both marks should be retained if they are of equal strength and serve different purposes:

  • She had the nerve to ask 'Why are you here?'!
  • Did he really shout 'Stop thief!'?
  • 'It counts as double punctuation' is certainly true, but is there a problem with double punctuation per se? Your OMS excerpt gives a partial licence. – Edwin Ashworth Oct 25 '16 at 9:55
  • True. It still looks wrong. I suppose that the real question is "which is the lesser of two evils, double punctuation or adjacent quotation marks?" I don't have a copy of the CMS to provide another opinion. – Mick Oct 25 '16 at 10:00
  • When I was young, long ago, it was obvious that written literature was superior to what Francis James Child called "oral literature." The written form was easier to store in libraries worldwide and easier to transmit, because it did not rely on word of mouth. The internet and the cloud have removed these advantages and exposed the many disadvantages, such as the whacky punctuation considered here, that are inherent in the written form. – Airymouse Nov 24 '16 at 15:27
  • I suspect the OMS rule argues for the double punctuation, since both serve different functions, yet are of equal importance. Personally, I use both US and UK rules, often in the same paragraph, so I really just wanted to know if it was acceptable in any major style manual. Thanks to all who answered. Your help is appreciated. – John H Harris Dec 4 '16 at 3:28

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