I just came across a sentence in this form:

I wonder if could there be more precise translations ...

Obviously the if doesn't belong. As a native speaker I would say

I wonder __ could there be more precise translations ...

To me this sounds natural in spoken English. It's colloquial or informal but but not so much so to not use in written English, at least not in an online forum for instance. But I'm completely at a loss as to which punctuation belongs where I've put __ as a placeholder.

Colon? Dash? Ellipsis? Semicolon?

Yes I know there are other ways to make this more elegant written English, but my question is only about punctuation please. I tried to make that clear in the question title, question body, and tags I chose so let me apologise if I failed to communicate that effectively.

Perhaps for the sake of coming up with the best way to punctuate without rewording we should assume we are transcribing spoken dialogue and we are not permitted to change any words but we are expected to spell and punctuate correctly.

  • "I wonder if there could be more precise translations ..." However, if you must break that, you can use a comma, colon or mdash: "I wonder, could there be more precise translations ...?" Note the question mark at the end.
    – Kris
    Nov 22, 2012 at 10:06
  • Yes I know rearranging the words is another option, but for the sake of this question I thought focussing on the punctuation would be helpful to many people besides myself. Also the ellipsis at the end was supposed to indicate that the sentence could end various ways that wouldn't really be related to the punctuation question so I left it brief. Nov 22, 2012 at 10:24
  • You can formally 'accept' an answer that you find is the most appropriate.
    – Kris
    Oct 21, 2013 at 14:41

6 Answers 6


It should be:

  • I wonder if there could be more precise translations. . . .

However, if you must break that, you can use a comma, colon, or em dash:

  • I wonder, could there be more precise translations. . . ?
  • I wonder: could there be more precise translations. . . ?
  • I wonder — could there be more precise translations. . . ?

Note that:

  • could and there are transposed in the first case;
  • it is an em dash — not the underscore character you used;
  • the question mark at the end is needed in the second set.
  • 2
    The underscore was used as a placeholder for where the correct punctuation belongs. My apologies if this isn't the correct way to indicate such a thing. Nov 22, 2012 at 11:06
  • 1
    @hippietrail Hm... In that case, you need at least two, better three underscores to show a blank (place holder). In any case, my comment on the underscore was as ample precaution, not necessarily pointing at an error.
    – Kris
    Nov 22, 2012 at 15:19
  • Ah OK I chose the short underscore because it was just for a punctuation symbol rather than a word, but now I've made it double. (I tried to make it triple but the system shortens it again!) Nov 23, 2012 at 4:43

You've also got the option of using a period and writing two sentences, which may the best choice because the first two words signal a declarative and not an interrogative:

I wonder. Could there be more precise translations ...?

Both a colon and a semicolon can be replaced by a period (end stop). A period seems better than any other type of punctuation to me, although an em-dash would be fine for dialog. The question mark has to be there because subject-verb inversion signals a question. Dialog writing isn't bound by any set of strict punctuation rules. All that's necessary is that the writing communicate what you want it to communicate. Colons and semicolons are very formal. Commas and em-dashes are informal. I don't like the comma version:

I wonder, could there be more precise translations ...?

because the reader will start out using declarative intonation and have to switch to interrogative intonation. For me, that means two sentences. But YMMV, as people are constantly saying.


If it's an informal setting, the dash is appropriate:

I wonder — Could there be more precise translations ...?

I don't suggest using a this construct in a truly formal context. If you choose to do so, a period seems to be the best choice:

I wonder. Could there be more precise translations ...?

The best option would be to rephrase based on what you really want to emphasize with the sentence. In the given context, the act of wondering isn't the important idea here. If you want to draw attention to the act of wondering, then I suggest a preceding sentence with a little more meaning.

  • Since I specifically want to know how to punctuate such a phrasing, let's assume for the sake of this question that I am transcribing informal speech and that rephrasing would not be permitted. Thanks for your answer. (-: Nov 29, 2012 at 4:19
  • -1 Using the period defeats the purpose, as it seems to me. It sounds like you want to say "I wonder." and be done with it before proceeding to that which you 'wonder' about.
    – Kris
    Nov 29, 2012 at 8:01

I’m not sure what you mean by 'obviously the of doesn't belong'. If you mean if, it certainly does belong, but it needs to be followed by there could, not could there. The second sentence would indeed occur in speech, but it would be out of place in formal writing. If you write it in something like an email to a friend, or in a Facebook post, the punctuation you choose isn’t hugely important. A comma after wonder might be enough, with a question mark at the end:

I wonder, could there be more precise translations?

  • Sorry! the of / if thing was a typo or thinko - fixing now... Nov 22, 2012 at 10:26

I'd use a comma, a colon or an ellipsis, depending on the impression you want to create — ellipsis is thoughtful and undecided, comma for neutral, colon gives it a strong, decisive feel.

  • I rather hate the ellipsis in formal contexts. It's being used as an emoticon.
    – tchrist
    Nov 22, 2012 at 14:28
  • 1
    @tchrist: Yes, nobody is interested in indecisiveness in formal contexts. Meanwhile, it's a very powerful "emoticon" in storytelling.
    – SF.
    Nov 22, 2012 at 14:32
  • Please assume for this question an informal context. Nov 29, 2012 at 4:20

Addressing the implied question in Obviously the if doesn't belong (and risking the scary downvote - but the increased ease of formatting is a controlling factor now):

There are two possible meanings / usages of if in such constructions (subordinate clauses):

I worry if she's not home by eleven. (explains condition prompting anxiety)

I wonder if she's left the club yet. (explains focus of the musing; replaceable by whether)

Notice that only in the first case can the subordinate clause be fronted.

The second usage is certainly acceptable, though if there is a possibility of ambiguity, whether should obviously be one's choice. Though I can't offhand think of a verb that can both be used intransitively (worry is intransitive) and take a whether-clause. Ah, hang on:

?Will you be able to decide if he's passed on all the relevant facts to Barry?

(subordinate clause frontable in one sense only)

  • I think you didn't realize that I'm specifically asking a punctuation question )-: Nov 22, 2012 at 11:05
  • Yes, but you did sneak in the 'Obviously the if doesn't belong.' Are contributors only allowed to comment on the last 5% of a post? Isn't this a site concentrating on better analysis and understanding of English in general? There are some contributors who actually edit others' postings to clarify and make them grammatical. Addressing a sub-point in a posting is hardly as drastic as that. If no valid point has been made, then I'd agree with you that a reply is unwarranted, but if a questioner included questionable material in a posting, he should be answerable for the consequences. Nov 22, 2012 at 11:17
  • Commenting would've been fine but because this was an answer rather than a comment and that was the introduction rather than the question I decided to downvote. Sorry if that caused any offence. Nov 22, 2012 at 11:22
  • Commenting would've been fine if one had the same formatting and spatial provisions as when answering. As I indicated. Nov 22, 2012 at 11:34

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