Indirect References to Questions

By Mark Nichol

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When referring to a paraphrased question, writers often introduce grammatical mistakes in the course of confusing the query for a quoted question. In the following sentences, errors are introduced in the course of posing an indirect question (or, in the case of the final example, a direct one). Discussion of the specific error, and a revision demonstrating a solution, follows each sentence.

1. This raises an interesting question, what is it about current customer service and customer experience management investments and programs that appear to resonate more with younger customers?

This sentence has a comma splice—an instance in which a comma is erroneously employed where a stronger punctuation mark is needed. In this case, what is punctuated as a subordinate clause is in fact a main clause, and what follows the comma is another. To resolve the issue, the comma must be replaced by a period, or, better, a colon (because the first clause introduces the second one): “This raises an interesting question: What is it about current customer service and customer experience management investments and programs that appear to resonate more with younger customers?”

2. Therefore, the real question is not whether the event will occur, but how will the entity respond if it does occur?

The bulk of this sentence consists of paraphrases of two questions, one of which is considered more significant than the other— “Will the event occur?” and “How will the entity respond if it does occur?” However, the sentence itself is not written in interrogative syntax, so the second paraphrase, which is phrased as if it is, must be revised slightly: “Therefore, the real question is not whether the event will occur but how the entity will respond if it does occur.” (Alternatively, both questions can be posed as literal queries, with quotation marks framing each one: “Therefore, the real question is not ‘Will the event occur?’ but ‘How will the entity respond if it does occur?’”)

3. The question is how much risk should they take?

Here, the sentence’s syntax supports the interrogative form of the question within it, but a comma must precede the paraphrase of the question: “The question is, how much risk should they take?” (The question should be enclosed in quotation marks only if it an actual reported spoken or written statement, not merely a point of discussion.) Alternatively, the comma can be omitted if the question is revised to be noninterrogative: “The question is how much risk they should take.”

4. This finding raises a question whether the organization should factor in a margin of error.

The syntax of this sentence is correct, except that the phrase “as to” should be inserted to fortify whether before the paraphrased question: “This finding raises a question as to whether the organization should factor in a margin of error.” (Alternatively, the sentence can be structured so that the question is posed as a direct quotation; note the substitution of the article a with the: “This finding raises the question “Should the organization factor in a margin of error?’”)

5. That factor raises the question, “Is this amount sufficient based on the report’s assessment?”

As shown in the alternative revision of the previous sentence, the comma in this sentence is erroneous: “That factor raises the question ‘Is this amount sufficient based on the report’s assessment?’” Including the comma creates the impression that only one question exists, and that single question follows. However, the quoted question is only one of an infinite number of possible questions, which the omission of the comma communicates.

This common error is possibly perpetuated because writers confuse this sentence construction with one in which a quotation is attributed, in which case a comma precedes the quotation, as in “John asked, ‘Is this amount sufficient based on the report’s assessment?” But “That factor raises the question” is not an attribution, so the rule does not apply.

An analogous distinction is seen in the following sentences: “He wrote the phrase ‘Do not enter’” and “The sign read, ‘Do not enter.’” The phrase “Do not enter” is not set off with a comma in the first sentence here, because that phrase is not the only possible phrase. An exception would occur if the phrase had previously been identified as the only possible one in context, as in “She whispered a phrase in his ear. He wrote the phrase, “‘Do not enter.’” But even here, a colon would be a better choice of punctuation for setting the phrase off from the rest of the sentence.

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2 Responses to “Indirect References to Questions”

  • Cecilia Kvam

    This is very helpful! I think there’s a misprint, though, in #3, where word order has been changed both times in your comment. (“should they” must be the correct way in the first correction,if I’ve read it right)

  • Mark Nichol

    Thanks for you note, Cecilia. The error has been corrected.

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