3 Problems with Introducing Sayings and Questions

By Mark Nichol

Often, an incorrect form of punctuation is deployed to set off the introduction of a saying or a question from the quoted material itself. The following sentences demonstrate various errors related to this issue, and discussions and revisions explain the problem and illustrate one or more solutions.

1. The old saying, “What gets rewarded gets done,” is as true with risk as with any other activity.

Setting the quoted saying off with commas implies that it is equivalent to “the old saying,” meaning that it is the old saying—the only one in existence. However, that phrase and the quotation are appositives; they both describe the same thing (a saying—one of many), so no internal punctuation is required: “The old saying ‘What gets rewarded gets done’ is as true with risk as with any other activity.”

2. From that perspective, we should ask: Are executives looking at portfolio management? Do they understand how the budgeting process works? Do they understand how the capital-allocation process works?

A colon should not be used here, because that punctuation mark serves as a sort of soft period, indicating the end of an independent clause and at the same time signaling that what follows will be some form of an extension of that clause. But what precedes the colon is not an independent clause, so that initial part of the sentence should be extended to become an independent clause: “From that perspective, we should ask the following questions: ‘Are executives looking at portfolio management?’ ‘Do they understand how the budgeting process works?’ ‘Do they understand how the capital-allocation process works?’” (Note, too, that because the questions are conjectural utterances, they should also be framed in quotation marks.)

Alternatively, a comma can replace the colon: “From that perspective, we should ask, ‘Are executives looking at portfolio management?’ ‘Do they understand how the budgeting process works?’ ‘Do they understand how the capital-allocation process works?’”

3. When we speak to heads of audit of organizations in the health care sector, many ask the same question, Where do we start?

This sentence illustrates a problem opposite to that discussed in the previous example. What precedes “Where do we start?” is a complete statement, so a colon should replace the final comma to set up the question: “When we speak to heads of audit of organizations in the health care sector, many ask the same question: ‘Where do we start?’” (Again, the question itself should be enclosed in quotation marks as well.)

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1 Response to “3 Problems with Introducing Sayings and Questions”

  • Michael Tevlin

    I disagree with the correction to #2. I prefer the original for two reasons. First, “we should ask” is suitable as an independent clause. “The following questions” is understood in the context of the sentence because, in fact, the questions follow. Thus, I’d keep the colon. Second, I don’t think the questions need to be framed in quotes. Quote marks look and feel clunky here, and they get in the way of the reader. It’s understood from the context that these are conjectural questions being posed by the author or authors.

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