EDITING

Ask Our Editors: Commas with Questions

June 11, 2019

Ask Our Editors: Commas with Questions

Q: When there are questions within a sentence, how do you handle that? In the below example, do I need to put quotation marks around both these questions, or is it OK for them to be capitalized without quotation marks around them? Or should they remain without quotation marks with "What" lowercase?

Example: Basic research asks questions like, What is the role of iron in ocean water, or, What are the structure and composition of membranes in bacteria growing in hot springs versus those growing in Hudson’s Bay?

 

A: There are a few different ways to handle questions that are incorporated in running text. Clarity and ease of reading need to be your priorities, and so style choices should aim to set apart the questions from the running text. 

Option 1: Use Quotation Marks

Basic research asks questions like “What is the role of iron in ocean water?” or “What are the structure and composition of membranes in bacteria growing in hot springs versus those growing in Hudson’s Bay?”

Note that the commas preceding both questions are dropped, as this isn’t dialogue and the questions are intrinsic to the meaning of the sentence.

Option 2: Italicize the Questions

Basic research asks questions like What is the role of iron in ocean water? or What are the structure and composition of membranes in bacteria growing in hot springs versus those growing in Hudson’s Bay?

The only issue you’ll want to consider here is the overuse of italics. If this is a one-off, it’s fine to treat the questions this way. But if the narrative is full of such queries (let's hope not), then roman font and quote marks would be a better bet.

Option 3: Revise the Text to Fix Awkward Constructions

Basic research raises the following questions: What is the role of iron in ocean water? How do the structure and composition of membranes differ in bacteria growing in hot springs versus those growing in the Hudson Bay?

Before agonizing over quotation marks versus italics, look closely and critically at the basic sentence structure. Is it really the styling of the questions that's problematic or is the text a big confusing knot? If you can make your point more simply, it's always a good idea to do so.

 

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