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I am trying to punctuate a reference back to an option displayed in a letter-labeled list, as one might see on a quiz in school. I have searched CMOS and StackExchange but haven’t found a precedent. Here is my passage:

There are three possibilities:

a) This thing.

b) That thing.

c) The other thing.

The answer is “c) The other thing.”

If I were reading this aloud, I would say the “c” prefix, so I want that left in the writing.

I have toyed with options including the following, but I would like to find some kind of objective evidence that one is superior to the others:

  1. The answer is “c) The other thing.”
  2. The answer is, “c) The other thing.”
  3. The answer is c, “The other thing.”
  4. The answer is c: “The other thing.”
  5. The answer is “(c) The other thing.”
  6. The answer is (c): “The other thing.”
  7. The answer is “c, The other thing.”

My gut preference is option 2 because it literally matches the list option including the label, but the unbalanced parenthesis has led to confusion in the mind of at least one of my reviewers. The next option I like option 5, but I don’t want the addition of the left-paren (which doesn’t exist in the list) to distract the reader from the point I’m trying to make with the passage.

Interesting debates include:

  • Should I use a single paren? balanced parens? or no parens?
  • Should I preface the quote with a comma? a colon? or no punctuation?
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  • I like 3, but without the italics. Commented Dec 15, 2021 at 8:04
  • I'm fond of that one as well, but would your feeling change if the answer had been “a” instead of “c” (the problem with which is that “a” happens also to be a word all its own)? Commented Dec 15, 2021 at 15:53
  • I think the context would make it clear. Commented Dec 16, 2021 at 1:34

1 Answer 1

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Note, questions of style are not universal. I don't know that any style guide addresses this scenario specifically, but there's no one "right answer." That said: Don't confuse formatting with meaningful content. In the list, the answers are demarcated by close-parens; that's no reason that you have to use one when discussing an answer. So of your suggestions, I would prefer 3 and 4 to 6. I would reject 1, 2, 5, and 7 on the grounds that you're not really including the letter in your quote (or don't have to); it's a signifier that represents the answer and you're using it as such. You're not quoting formatting, your quoting language.

That said, it's then up to you or your style guide whether you italicize "c", set it off with quote marks, capitalize it, or not. As far as I'm concerned you're under no obligation, say, to use lowercase just because the stylization of the list did.

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  • Oh, other point: if whoever's reviewing you is in a position to accept or reject your work—a journal submission or thesis?—then the "right answer" is whatever they want. Commented Dec 14, 2021 at 20:40
  • I'm in the lucky position of being my own editor/designer on this project, so I can choose however I want. I'm just trying to choose wisely. Commented Dec 14, 2021 at 21:46

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