I know that when brackets enclose part of a sentence, the full stop goes outside.

I tripped over this morning. I was distracted by a plane (which turned out to be Superman).

If it's a full sentence, the full stop goes inside.

I tripped over. (I was distracted by a plane that turned out to be Superman.)

What happens when there's a question mark and only part of the sentence is a question?

I tripped over this morning. I was distracted by a plane (or was it Superman?)

(or was it Superman?).

(or was it Superman)?

What happens to the full stop that belongs to the rest of the sentence, and why?

  • Accepted answer to question 13528 addresses this. Neither answer to question 2119 answers it. Mar 18, 2012 at 20:36
  • 2
    @jwpat7 It doesn't; it doesn't explain what happens when the ! or ? is at the end of a sentence terminated by a bracket. If it answers it, then which one of my 3 suggestions is correct?
    – Lunivore
    Mar 18, 2012 at 21:03
  • Lunivore, question 13528 treats some aspects of your question, but certainly not all. Re which of 3 is correct, I've posted an answer. Mar 18, 2012 at 23:06

4 Answers 4


Regarding "What happens when there's a question mark and only part of the sentence is a question?" and your three suggestions, my opinions are:

  • I was distracted by a plane (or was it Superman?) ‒ Is missing period.
  • I was distracted by a plane (or was it Superman?). ‒ Is ok
  • I was distracted by a plane (or was it Superman)? ‒ Treats whole as question

I don't have definitive authorities to support the above choices. I have seen only three webpages that even remotely address your question:

  • englishplus says

    In a sentence containing a parenthetical expression, any punctuation belonging to the main sentence goes outside the parentheses.

  • wowwritingworkshop says

    A sentence in parentheses within another sentence does not take a period, because the period is reserved for the main sentence (questions and exclamations, however, must have their respective marks!).

  • brians at public.wsu.edu says

    Normally a sentence’s final punctuation mark—whether period, exclamation point, or question mark—goes outside such a parenthesis (like this). However, if the material inside the parenthesis requires a concluding punctuation mark like an exclamation point or question mark (but not a period!), that mark is placed inside the closing mark even though another mark is outside it. This latter sort of thing is awkward, however, and best avoided if you can help it.

Note, rather than using parentheses I would word the sentence as

I was distracted by a plane; or was it Superman?

  • I was distracted by a plane (or was it Superman?). - Never knew you attach the period, but I guess it makes sense
    – henryaaron
    Mar 18, 2012 at 23:08
  • 1
    Thanks - this is exactly what I wanted to know (and I'll avoid that sentence construction in future!).
    – Lunivore
    Mar 19, 2012 at 14:29
  • << I was distracted by a plane (or was it Superman?) ‒ Is missing period. >> implies that this is unacceptable. But some style guides recommend that that's exactly what you do here, letting the question mark do double duty. (Though admittedly I've found a style guide allowing double punctuation hereabouts, and think it's clearer if ugly.) Oct 24, 2016 at 10:32
  • @EdwinAshworth, please list a style guide or two that recommends the first form and I'll add that to answer. Also the name of one which allows double punctuation. [Or triple, if you count each of ?, ), and . as punctuation.] Note, re terming the form “ugly”, the public.wsu.edu ref in answer already says “This ... sort of thing is awkward ... and best avoided”. Oct 24, 2016 at 19:27
  • I'm struggling; most references are to end-of-quotation punctuation. The University of York Style Guide has: << Punctuation: Some general points: • Headings at all levels have minimal punctuation. // • If a web address (url) occurs at the end of a sentence, finish the sentence with a full stop. // • Avoid double punctuation.>> (followed admittedly by) << Quotations that end with a question mark or exclamation mark should not be followed by a full stop outside the quotation marks. >> Oct 24, 2016 at 20:35

When there's a question mark in the parenthetical matter and only part of the sentence is a question, you should put the question mark inside the parentheses and a period (full stop) at the end of the sentence:

I was distracted by a plane (or was it Superman?).

You asked for a reason why. The reason comes from the purpose for parentheses. From The Grammar Bible by Michael Strumpf: Parentheses enclose words, phrases, clauses, and sentences that are included in a sentence as explanations or commentary .... Punctuate the primary portion of the sentence as if the parenthetical portion were not there.

You should be able to lift out the parenthetical portion and still have the sentence make sense and be punctuated correctly.

I actually prefer jwpat7's suggested rewording and punctuation.

  • Good answer, but I'd say the version with the question mark within the parentheses and the full-stop outside it is fine as it is (no need to reword it!). Mar 19, 2012 at 5:35

Well you should be able to remove parentheses, and the contents within them, and your statement should still make sense.

So in the first instance:

"I tripped over this morning. I was distracted by a plane (or was it Superman?)" would become "I tripped over this morning. I was distracted by a plane" which works.

But the second instance "I tripped over this morning. I was distracted by a plane (or was it Superman)?" would become "I tripped over this morning. I was distracted by a plane?" Which does not really make sense, or it changes the meaning of the sentence at least.

So, to fully answer your question: In this instance, you would need the question mark within the parentheses. Also with regards to your full stop/period, I think in some conventions it could go outside the parentheses (this might be a British/American thing).

  • 1
    UK usage would definitely put the period after the close bracket, as you've ended your answer. Frankly, I think OP's "whole sentence in brackets" looks totally bonkers! The only sensible option there is not to have a period after the word "over", and put the other one after the closing bracket as normal. What does it mean to write an entire sentence in parentheses? Will OP start asking next how to punctuate whole paragraphs in parentheses? What about whole chapters? (Of course, rules are made to be broken - even my own! :) Mar 19, 2012 at 4:39
  • There's nothing wrong with having entire sentences within parentheses as long as it makes sense semantically and isn't overused. Even multiple sentences including their respective punctuation can be within the parentheses if it's warranted, and you should still be able to remove the parentheses and contents and have the remainder make sense grammatically. The only thing that would not make sense if plucked apart is that the first sentence in parentheses needs to start with a lowercase letter (I believe). Mar 19, 2012 at 5:50

The question mark should go within the parentheses (I've copied this answer from a related later question asking much the same thing about exclamation marks and parenthesised text).

The general principle, as Danger Fourpence says, is that a sentence should remain structurally valid if the parenthetical brackets, and everything enclosed by them, are removed. I think it's really a stylistic choice whether I put a period after the word “parentheses” in that first sentence above. (But if I had, I’d have had to put the second period inside the closing bracket, like this.)

The text within parentheses can be a whole sentence (several sentences?), but I don’t think it’s acceptable for the “enclosing” sentence to continue after the closing bracket, if one or more periods (exclamation/question marks don’t count!) appear in the parenthetical text.

Thus, for example, this statement ends with a period after the final word “here”. (Following the principle outlined above, I can parenthesise multiple sentences, but in this case they aren’t “part of” any enclosing sentence. Thus the second parenthesised sentence ends with a period before the closing bracket, after this word “here”.) Even if there’s no actual “rule” saying I can’t, I wouldn’t replace the word “period” (and corresponding symbol!) in that statement with “comma” and start this supplementary statement with “but even”!

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