How To Punctuate Correctly Yet Still Irritate Editors

24th January 2003

Filed by: Officers Taylor and MacDonald

Officer Taylor invites you to consider the film Whatever happened to Baby Jane? and the musical Oklahoma! Suppose we of the SAGP want to know whether or not you've seen them. Then we would need to ask, in the first case:

Have you seen Oklahoma!?

What an awkward cluster of punctuation at the end, with the exclamation mark followed immediately by a question mark. But if that's unappealing, the question about the film is worse:

Have you seen Whatever Happened to Baby Jane??

This is an awkward sentence to deal with. The second question mark is certainly not redundant. The two question marks serve two completely separate purposes: the first is a part of the title, the second is because I'm asking you a question about it.

Officer MacDonald observes that this is the famous question to which there is no answer; it's been asked before, but it doesn't seem to be answered in any punctuation guide.

The first question (Oklahoma!) is the easier of the two. Because the title, including the exclamation mark, appear in print in italics, the following question mark is not a problem for most editors.

But the second is a monster. Logically, both question marks belong there. In the US, however, nearly all editors would jettison the second because there is a strong prejudice here against using the same mark twice at the end of a sentence. US writers can omit it with confidence. In the UK, it may well be different, and both question marks might be used, because UK punctuation tends to be logical, while in the US it's more likely to follow some rule or prejudice.

UK punctuation guides are just as silent on this as the US guides, though, so we can't be sure. We wish somebody in England would ask a copy editor what the London Times would do. In the UK, though, there is more flexibility; so we wouldn't be surprised if, however the Times did it, the Guardian did it the other way.

People who wish to exercise extreme prudence would avoid the problem in both cases by rephrasing the sentence. We hate to admit defeat, but sometimes discretion is the better part ...

Feedback to <> is welcome!