The double-punctuation solution

Last week, we discussed the various ways of punctuating the following sentence:

His question “How do I get enough to eat?” does not have a simple answer.

We introduced the concept of omitting a comma as a second punctuation mark in attributive tags, as in “Will this plan cause our taxes to go up?” he asked, but including it if the first punctuation mark is part of the title, as in The Chicago Manual of Style version of “Are You a Doctor?,” the fifth story in Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?, and the Associated Press style version: “Are You a Doctor?,” the fifth story in “Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?,” treats modern love.

But what happens when the doubled punctuation mark is not part of an attributive tag or a title?

Sign up for CJR's daily email

In our example, the friend’s suggestions of how to punctuate the passage both included a comma after the word “question.” That comma would be needed if what followed the word “question” was an appositive, added information that is not essential to the sentence. (The information could be surrounded by parentheses and no one would miss it if it went away.) And, as we’ve learned, appositives need to be bracketed by two commas (as they would be by two parentheses). In the sentence “The man, who had grown up in Missouri, moved to New York when he was 40,” the phrase “who had grown up in Missouri” is an appositive, giving extra information about the man, but not essential to understanding the sentence, whose point was that he “moved to New York when he was 40.”

Does our friend’s sentence have an appositive? If so, does that mean it needs the second comma because what follows the quotation is not attributive? 

Maybe. We can’t tell from this context.

If he asked many questions, the information contained in “How do I get enough to eat?” would be essential.

His question “How do I get enough to eat?” does not have a simple answer.

Note that there are no commas at all.

But if this is the only question he asked, then yes, what follows is an appositive. He asked just one question, so the content of it is less important; the point of the sentence is that his question didn’t have a simple answer. Then, grammatically, you might want that second comma:

His question, “How do I get enough to eat?,” does not have a simple answer.

Except that almost no one wants that punctuation pileup. Chicago allows you to double up punctuation marks “only if they are different and the sentence punctuation seems essential,” as in “Who shouted, ‘Long live the king!’?” Most other usage guides don’t even contemplate the possibility.

The main guideline is to think about how each punctuation mark would act without the other, and to omit the less important one if it’s not absolutely necessary to understand the sentence. No one would misunderstand our friend’s sentence without the second comma in the appositive:

His question, “How do I get enough to eat?” does not have a simple answer.

The question mark effectively takes the second comma’s place. The only reason to include the second one would be to follow the grammar “rule” in a place where it creates more awkwardness than it solves. As Chicago says, “The occasional awkward result may require rewording.”

By the way, the same concepts apply to exclamation points.

Also by the way, don’t pile question marks and exclamation points as a way of emphasizing something, unless you’re 12. If you are desperate to use that combination rhetorically, for emphasis, there already is a punctuation mark for that: the interrobang, a combination of an exclamation point and question mark. 

Interrobang.png

Though it’s a child of the 1960s, you probably can’t find it on your keyboard. But Microsoft Word has a Unicode shortcut for it: Type 203D and then press ALT and X at the same time and you get ‽

Now forget you ever heard that.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.