Punctuation Errors When Posing a Question

By Mark Nichol

When writers pose a question, or call attention to one, they sometimes impose unnecessary punctuation in the framing sentence. Here are a few examples of extraneous punctuation in such sentences.

1. “To pass a necessity test usually means a negative response to the question: ‘Can the same result be obtained by other means?’”
A colon is correctly used only when it follows a complete thought; it serves as a traffic sign noting that what follows is a definition, expansion, or explanation. The question in question is none of these — it’s just a question, and to precede it with a colon (or a comma) implies that it’s the only existing question.

Delete colons in such constructions: “To pass a necessity test usually means a negative response to the question ‘Can the same result be obtained by other means?’” (And because the quotation is not attributed — no one is credited with a “Smith said” type of attribution — the comma that normally follows such a phrase is not necessary before the quotation here.)

2. “There remains the question: where, if at all, should we draw the line?”
This sentence suffers from the same problem as the previous one. The question is not styled to suggest that it was actually uttered or can be uttered, although that is possible; it’s an unspoken expression of a problem to solve and can therefore be incorporated directly into the framing sentence: “There remains the question of where, if at all, we should draw the line.”

3. “The question was how to translate and standardize these successful processes across a company that had several new divisions, a diverse global spread, and disparate technical platforms?”
This sentence is correctly rendered in terms of the incorporation recommended for the previous example, but one problem remains — no question is literally posed in the sentence, the syntax of which is declarative — so interrogative punctuation is not appropriate: “The challenge was to translate and standardize these successful processes across a company that had several new divisions, a diverse global spread, and disparate technical platforms.”

Click here to get access to 800+ interactive grammar exercises!


Share


3 Responses to “Punctuation Errors When Posing a Question”

  • Linda M Au

    Another one I see often goes something like this: “I wonder if we’re going to make it home in time?” That too is not a question. It’s a statement.

  • Curtis

    You threw me off with #1. Your comment on the example began, “A colon is correctly used only when it follows a complete thought;”.

    You meant to say ‘precedes’ instead of ‘follows.’

  • Mark Nichol

    Curtis:

    Yes, that’s what I meant. Thanks for the catch!

Leave a comment: