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Getting Specific—Addressing Readers’ Examples (Part 2)

November 8, 2015 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified November 8, 2015

This article is the third in a series focusing on specific reader questions. Other articles in the series include:

Answering Your Questions About Specifics (Introduction)

Getting Specific—Addressing Readers’ Examples (Part 1)

__________________________________

Because the answer to today’s question is wordy, we’re just going to focus on the one question in this article. (Both question and answer are edited from their original forms.) Since the question is a multipart one, I’ve paired the answers with their questions.

This question focuses on commas paired with question marks and exclamation points inside quotation marks.

Although we typically only use one punctuation mark in most places—for example, question marks and exclamation points often replace the comma or period—for clarity we can use multiple marks.

We sometimes have a comma following a period—for example, when the period is part of an abbreviation. And we can pair a period with an ellipsis or include single quotation marks next to doubles.

But some combinations of multiple punctuation marks would be rare—so rare that you might never use the construction—but as we see here, sometimes there are instances when the two marks are both necessary.

 

Question

The weekly periodical, “How Do We Invest In the Future?,” is very popular. (Comma goes inside the ending quote because a title of a work is being referenced, correct?)

 

Answer

Yes, the comma goes inside the quotation marks and after the question mark because the question mark is part of the periodical’s title.  (The comma would go outside the quotation marks for BrE.) The comma is still necessary in this case because the question mark is not replacing it. The question mark isn’t part of the sentence’s punctuation; it’s simply part of the title being quoted. So the sentence still requires its normal punctuation. The same would hold true for an exclamation point that was part of a title being quoted.

 

Question

Chicago (Chicago Manual of Style or CMOS) 16 doesn’t specifically address this next issue. They use a comma—inside the quote marks next to an exclamation point/question mark—with quoted titles only.

So are these correct? These are not quoted titles.

When Jill screamed, “Help!” the neighbors called 911.

When Frank asked, “Where’s the keg?” his wife said that his friend drank it all.

 

Answer

CMOS (16th ed.) addresses the issue in section 6.119.

“When a question mark or exclamation point appears at the end of a quotation where a comma would normally appear, the comma is omitted . . .”

CMOS goes on to say explain the allowance for including a comma for titles that end in exclamation points or question marks (the situation in our reader’s first question).

The Copyeditor’s Handbook (CH), however, allows commas under an additional condition.

They include an allowance for adding commas in a sentence with an appositive, which means the sentence has a section of text that is set apart by commas.

Yet the example CH uses for this allowance also includes titles, so it’s difficult to know whether it’s actually the title (with the question mark)  or the appositive that leads to the need for the comma. But they say it’s because there’s an appositive, so we’ll go with that rationale.

An example based on their example:

The song “Who’s Your Baby?”, a crowd favorite, was playing when we entered the club.

Note that the comma is outside the quotation marks, even for AmE format. Yet in a footnote the folks at the CH admit that some authors and editors would decide to put the comma inside the quotation mark. For BrE, definitely put it outside.

The Copyeditor’s Handbook specifically points out that we don’t use commas for quotations when a question or exclamation is used midsentence other than for sentences with one of the two allowances—with titles and with appositives. Their reason is that there’s no ambiguity, so the comma can safely be replaced by either the question mark or exclamation point.

Outside of these allowances, we replace the comma; we don’t double up on punctuation.

In fiction, we recognize this same switch of punctuation in dialogue when a question mark or exclamation point replaces the comma before a dialogue tag—

“Ten alien ships are headed toward Los Angeles,” Reed said.

“But how many have entered the atmosphere?” Salkin asked.

Yet if CH allows for both the question mark and a comma with appositives, I wonder if there couldn’t be one more allowance for the double punctuation.

An example based on the format of the CH example:

After the boys first ask “How many reps?” you should hold back your answer.

Following the rules, this sentence doesn’t get a comma between reps and you. However, I see a logic problem with this because if we’re going to allow a comma for an appositive, we should probably also allow a comma when an independent clause follows a dependent one, a place we typically include a comma.

Why is there an allowance for the one and not the other?

Maybe it’s because we expect to see a pair of commas with the appositive that CH recommends an allowance. (If any grammar gurus or editors have insight on this issue, I’d love to hear it.)

For the examples posed by our reader, according to The Copyeditor’s Handbook we wouldn’t use commas.

When Jill screamed, “Help!” the neighbors called 911.

When Frank asked, “Where’s the keg?” his wife said that his friend drank it all.

I would argue, however, that the comma wouldn’t hurt and might even head off double takes by readers who’d been expecting a comma.

CMOS covers this issue a second time in a question to their online service—see the question featuring fruit. Once again, CMOS recommends omitting the comma.

I’m not arguing for a comma in ordinary dialogue questions when the question mark replaces the comma before the dialogue tag. My argument is simply an option to consider when the format is an independent clause following a dependent one in the middle of dialogue where the absence of a comma might lead to confusion.

So no special allowance for these:

“Help!” Jill screamed.

“Can you help me?” Jill asked.

But since there are already exceptions, perhaps we accept one for these:

When Jill screamed, “Help!,” the neighbors called 911.

When Frank asked, “Where’s the keg?,” his wife said that his friend drank it all.

The format does look odd, admittedly. But it looks just as odd with the appositive exception. And yet I admit that these sentences look just as odd to me without the commas.

This last possibility for a third exception is my two cents; the logic seems to fit other allowances. Yet keep in mind that what I’m proposing is contrary to standard recommendations. You might be able to argue for the comma in such situations, but it’s clearly not a standard use.

Of course, rewriting is always an option. Sometimes rewriting is the best option.

When Jill screamed, “Help,” the neighbors called 911.

When Jill screamed for help, the neighbors called 911.

When Frank asked where the keg was, his wife said that his friend drank it all.

His wife said that his friend drank it all when Frank asked, “Where’s the keg?”

 

Question

I say no commas in these, correct?

The questions “Who?” “What?” “When?” “Where” and “Why?” remain unanswered. (No commas, I say.)

I resented her “How old are you?” “Are you married?” and “Are you interested in a fling?” questions. (No commas, I say.)

Answer

When I first answered this question, I had tried to include commas with the question and quotation marks (based on a flawed understanding of a reading of The Copyeditor’s Handbook’s section on weak and strong punctuation). Solely my error, not theirs.

The quick answer is that these sentences, based on what we know of question marks and commas, don’t require commas.

But my second recommendation, rewriting, seems to be the better answer.

I wouldn’t recommend question marks or quotation marks for either of these, although you can use question marks in at least one of the rewriting options.

A couple of options for that first sentence:

The questions of who, what, when, where, and why remain unanswered.

My questions—who, what, when, where, and why—remain unanswered.

The ever-popular questions of who, what, when, where, and why remain unanswered.

Options for the second sentence:

I resented her how old are you, are you married, and are you interested in a fling questions.

I resented her how-old-are-you, are-you-married, and are-you-interested-in-a-fling questions.

I resented her questions: how old are you, are you married, and are you interested in a fling?

I resented her questions: How old are you? Are you married? Are you interested in a fling?

There aren’t reasons to include quotation marks for these particular sentences, though I’m guessing that the reader was wondering about commas with question marks and quotation marks, just as in the earlier examples.

So when you’ve got a true reason to include all three elements, try something like this:

His nosy questions, and I quote, included the following: “Where were you when Josie was killed?” “What time did you get to the party?” “How many drinks did you have before you arrived?”

______________________

In almost all instances, don’t use commas to separate elements in a sentence when question marks or exclamation points fall into the same place as the commas in that sentence. Yet do be aware of exceptions for punctuation included in titles, for appositives, and just maybe for dependent clauses preceding independent ones when the lack of a comma could cause confusion.

Keep in mind that these allowances are for specific situations. You might never have cause to determine whether or not to use a comma following a question mark or exclamation point.

*******

There are lots of options for discussion here. If you’ve got input, please share it.

***

 

 

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Tags: , ,     Posted in: A Reader Asks..., Grammar & Punctuation

34 Responses to “Getting Specific—Addressing Readers’ Examples (Part 2)”

  1. John Philipp says:

    Beth, I just wanted to tell you that I find your blog posts interesting and informative. You always make excellent point on topics of interest to me, especially as I am into a novel revision process. When that’s done, I’ll be ready for someone like you to look at it. First, I want to improve it the best I can.

    Thanks and keep up the good work.

    John

  2. Lou Sanders says:

    Beth, I too did some research and found this!

    From The Writer’s Digest Grammar Desk Reference, by Lutz & Stevenson:

    If a quotation ending with a question mark or an exclamation point is immediately followed by a participial phrase, a dependent clause, or a long independent clause beginning with a coordinating conjunction, insert a comma before the closing quotation mark.

    She asked, “You did what?,” trying to make him feel guilty.

    She shouted, “Come back!,” as if he were finally ready to listen to reason.

    When quotation marks enclose the title of a work (such as the title of a song) that ends with a question mark or an exclamation point, insert a comma before the closing quotation mark if the title is followed by a nonrestrictive element (that is, an element that needs to be set off with commas at both ends).

    The Smiths’ “How Soon Is Now?,” first released in 1984, remains the band’s most familiar song.

    Similarly, when the quoted matter ending with a question mark or an exclamation point functions as a nonrestrictive appositive or appears at the end of a nonrestrictive phrase or dependent clause, insert a comma before the closing quotation mark.

    The Smiths’ most familiar song, “How Soon Is Now?,” was first released in 1984.

    January is crammed with fresh contortions on the reality genre, from Fox’s “My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiancé” to “Can You Be a Pornstar?,” a self-explanatory reality show on adult pay-per-view cable channels.

    Though he’s Google-adept, as he proves when he’s playing “Gotcha!,” one does wonder what Mr. Peck knows.

    A quotation ending with a question mark or an exclamation point sometimes also requires a comma before the closing quotation mark. Such doubled punctuation improves the readability of the sentence.

    If a quotation ending with a question mark or an exclamation point is immediately followed by a clause of attribution, no comma is inserted.

    “Where are you calling from?” she asked.

    “Listen to me!” she shouted.

    • Lou, I think I love Writer’s Digest. I knew there had to be other allowances for the use of a comma after a question mark or exclamation point.

      Thanks for checking and for sharing the info. So this is actually contradictory to CMOS, but logical in many ways.

      Great sleuthing!

  3. Lou Sanders says:

    You’re welcome! We out here can help too.

    By the way, I just bought Lutz & Stevenson’s book. It’s truly a must-have, I assure you! It covers EVERYTHING on grammar and punctuation, including about twenty pages on hyphens! You must get this if you don’t have it, trust me.

  4. Lou Sanders says:

    Beth, I can’t find the “question featuring fruit” in the link above.

  5. Lou Sanders says:

    And I also found this in the online AP Q&A!

    Q. Really need the help. OK as punctuated below (exclamation point, comma, then ending quote marks)? Next month’s issue will feature the following articles: “Will the Internet Replace Long-Distance Telephone Service?,” Tax Law Changes — Again!,” “Are Business Cycles Obsolete?,” and “Whither Wall Street?” ALSO: The questions “Did he do it?,” “Why did he do it?,” and “What was his ulterior motive?” will be brought up at his trial. AND: When Alesia screamed, “You will pay for this!,” she got the attention of everyone in the courtroom. LASTLY: If you ask the question, “How did you arrive at that figure?,” the board of directors will look at you as if you have two heads. Punctuation with commas in quote marks after the question mark and exclamation point OK? Thanks so much. – from Loudonville, N.Y. on Fri, Jan 20, 2012

    A. Separate the series of titles and questions with semicolons outside the quotes. 

    Next month’s issue will feature the following articles: “Will the Internet Replace Long-Distance Telephone Service?”; Tax Law Changes — Again!”; “Are Business Cycles Obsolete?”; and “Whither Wall Street?”

    *****

    For the sentence quotes, the exclamation and question mark take the place of second commas.

    The questions “Did he do it?” “Why did he do it?” and “What was his ulterior motive?” will be brought up at his trial.

    When Alesia screamed, “You will pay for this!” she got the attention of everyone in the courtroom.

    If you ask the question, “How did you arrive at that figure?” the board of directors will look at you as if you have two heads.

  6. Lou Sanders says:

    But Lutz & Stevenson would certainly espouse this:

     Next month’s issue will feature the following articles: “Will the Internet Replace Long-Distance Telephone Service?,” Tax Law Changes — Again!,” “Are Business Cycles Obsolete?,” and “Whither Wall Street?”

    And, surely, The AP should have dropped the comma after “question” in this one:

    If you ask the question, “How did you arrive at that figure?” the board of directors will look at you as if you have two heads. (The question is essential info here. Thus, no comma.)

    The comma should come after the question mark inside the ending quote marks:
    If you ask the question “How did you arrive at that figure?,” the board of directors will look at you as if you have two heads.

  7. Lou Sanders says:

    I’m sure you concur. Lol. 😂

  8. Lou Sanders says:

    I also think that “screamed,” “asked,” and “asks” are not true dialogue tags in the sentences below—thus no comma should follow each word. However, we should insert a comma—inside the quote marks—after “Help!,” “keg?,” and “beer?” as I’ve done below. Agreed?

    When Jill screamed “Help!,” the neighbors called 911.

    When Frank asked “Where’s the keg?,” his wife said that his friend drank it all.

    • I think that this part of the Desk Reference’s explanation covers a lot of options—

      “A quotation ending with a question mark or an exclamation point sometimes also requires a comma before the closing quotation mark. Such doubled punctuation improves the readability of the sentence.”

      Yet for these sentences, this looks to be the key advice—

      “Similarly, when the quoted matter ending with a question mark or an exclamation point . . . appears at the end of a nonrestrictive phrase or dependent clause, insert a comma before the closing quotation mark.”

  9. Lou Sanders says:

    Oops. I forgot the third example. Here it is.

    If she asks “Where’s the beer?,” tell her we ran out.

  10. Lou Sanders says:

    When Nancy yelled “Fire!,” everyone evacuated the building.

    In other words, the “yelled” is not a dialogue tag; it’s just a narration that includes a quote. Therefore you do not put a comma after “yelled” here.

    The same applies (i.e., no commas after) to “screamed,” “asked,” and “asks” in the examples above.

  11. Lou Sanders says:

    When Nancy yelled “Fire!,” everyone evacuated the building.
    (“Yelled” is not a dialogue tag in this sentence for the reason outlined above.)

    Nancy yelled, “Fire!”
    (“Yelled” is a dialogue tag here. Comma is required after “yelled”.)

    Do you agree on both counts?

    • I do. Although I’m sure that many people would probably include the comma with your first example (and some of the others you provided). I’d guess that if the comma was included in a fiction manuscript or book, most readers wouldn’t question the comma or worry about it. We’re very used to seeing that comma after words such as say and ask.

  12. Lou Sanders says:

    But I do believe Chicago would do this:

    She asked, “You did what?” trying to make him feel guilty.

    She shouted, “Come back!” as if he would listen to reason.

  13. Lou Sanders says:

    And this:

    When Nancy yelled “Fire!” everyone evacuated the building.

  14. Roy says:

    Are these finer points of comma placement due only to the fact that AmE puts punctuation inside quotation marks? In other words, does this problem not exist for BrE users?

    This looks fine to me, if I accept the BrE usage:

    She asked, “You did what?”, trying to make him feel guilty.

    Without the comma, there is a little ambiguity, as if you did something in order to make him feel guilty, perhaps.

    Once I became aware of the BrE custom regarding quotation marks, I saw the (superior) logic of it, although of course it still kind of looks funny. It seems like we Americans are thinking pretty hard–maybe too hard–about this.

    • Roy, the particular question here is more about whether or not to include a comma rather than where to put it. If the comma is included, AmE would put it inside the closing quotation mark and BrE would put it outside.

      The questions Lou has are for very specific conditions—for most fiction writers most of the time, this issue wouldn’t even come up. Still, it’s good to know the recommendations and why they’re recommended.

      ——

      The BrE punctuation usage does seem more logical that AmE. But I’m guessing the general rules won’t be changing anytime soon.

  15. Thank you all for the specifics on double punctuation. It is greatly appreciated.

  16. Lou Sanders says:

    And lastly …

    The Copyeditor’s Handbook gives this example — with no commas:

    When customers ask “Do you have this in my size?” you should help them.

  17. Lou Sanders says:

    Found it! 

    From Chicago’s Q&A—

    Q. This may be impossible to answer, but I feel it’s important, so I’m gonna give it my best shot. This is how I would punctuate the following:

    Can you believe that I said, “When she says, ‘Do you know which fruit Jim likes best: apples, bananas, or oranges?,’ tell her this: ‘Actually, I once overheard Jim say, “I only eat pears!” ’.”?!

    A. Chicago style would omit the comma after “oranges,” and we would omit the period near the end, and we allow only one colon per sentence, and we would not allow the final exclamation mark, and I seriously doubt that any editor here would let a sentence like that into a book—but otherwise, your styling is perfect. Here’s a simpler version, just for fun:

    Can you believe that I said, “When she says, ‘Do you know which fruit Jim likes best—apples, bananas, or oranges?’ tell her that, actually, I once overheard Jim say that he only eats pears”?

    Thus, I’m sure this is how Chicago’d do it—just the comma after the speech tag:

    When customers ask, “Do you have this in my size?” you should help them.

    When Danielle said, “I’m through with David!” she said it with conviction.

    If Lou says, “Pay attention!” you’d better listen.

    When Dad yelled, “Knock it off!” he got the attention of my brothers.

    When Lucille asked Mike, “Will you go out with me?” he turned bright red.

    She asked, “You did what?” trying to make him feel guilty.

    She shouted, “Come back!” as if he were finally ready to listen to reason.

    Yes or no to all per Chicago’s example?

    End of topic.

    Pheeeew!

    Thanks, Beth!

    • Lou, I think you’ve got a handle on the CMOS format. This seems to be exactly what they’d use. Of course, we’ll probably find exceptions for one or more of these in some near-hidden section of CMOS.

    • Sorry for coming late to the conversation, new on the blog.

      When I read all of the examples that Lou provided based on the Chicago style, I found if I treat the dialog part (, “xxx… ?”) as a single object and take it completely out of the sentence or substitute a generic placeholder word like “something”, then it becomes much more obvious if the comma is needed, based on what the author wants to convey.

      For example:
      She shouted as if he were finally ready to listen.
      If Lou says something you’d better listen.

  18. Lou Danders says:

    One more (LOL)… English is truly crazy. There are so many conflicting answers on this topic from so many style guides. You’d think only one truly correct answer would exist!

    The Associated Press Q&A replied this year with the following (yikes!).

    Q. Is this punctuated correctly? “Mamma Mia!,” her favorite play, was on Broadway. – from Virginia, XX on Wed, Mar 04, 2015

    A. No comma after an exclamation point:
    “Mamma Mia!” her favorite play, was on Broadway.

    • AP often has different rules. Space is an issue and if they can reduce punctuation to get in more words, they do it.

      Yet I’m still surprised they don’t recommend a comma here since we found that the other sources did recommend one. This is the one instance where there was no disagreement, if I recall.

      Still, that comma takes up space.

      But you’re right; consistency is crucial. Choose the style guide that fits your writing project—newspaper article, school essay, novel, blog post—and go with it and its rules unless you’re making a style choice for a particular exception or reason.

  19. Lou Sanders says:

    So, basically, take your pick; just be consistent within a document.