Questions inside sentences

Here’s one of those things that tend to trip me up: questions inside sentences, where the questions are not direct quotes.

Quotes, of course, we can handle well enough, as with the following example:

She asked me, “How do you punctuate this sentence?”

But how would you punctuate the following sentence, which contains a direct question that is not a quote?

the question is how do you punctuate this sentence

Should there be a question mark at the end of the sentence? Should the question part be in italics? In quotation marks? Should there be a comma—or maybe a colon—before “how”? Should “how” be capitalized?

Here’s what the experts say (I’m referring to the Chicago Manual of Style, 16th ed.):

1) When you have a direct question that is part of a sentence (as in my example), introduce it with a comma and end it with a question mark. Don’t use italics.

The question is, how do you punctuate this sentence?

2) The question itself shouldn’t start with a capital letter unless it’s a long question and/or the question itself has punctuation.

So in the following example we might want to capitalize the word how because (a) the question is quite long; and (b) the question itself contains punctuation (in this case what’s called an em-dash: —):

The question is, How do you punctuate this sentence—with a capital or with a lower case letter at the beginning?

Finally, bear in mind that all of the above applies only to direct questions—those that can stand on their own. Indirect questions, on the other hand, are simply written as part of the sentence, as in the following example:

The question is how you punctuate this sentence.

Here, the part “how you punctuate this sentence” cannot stand on its own. It’s an indirect question, and so we don’t introduce it with a comma or end it with a question mark.

In fact, Chicago suggests that if the direct question looks awkward, you might consider rephrasing the sentence so that it has an indirect question and you don’t have to worry about the whole thing at all.

But then I wonder, what should I be writing about instead?

Have you wondered how to punctuate questions inside sentences (that’s an indirect question inside a direct question—go figure)? Do you have any examples you can share and how you ended up punctuating them?

Any other punctuation/spelling/grammar conundrums you’d like me to write about while the Chicago Manual of Style is still fresh on my mind? Leave a comment.


For more information, see Chicago Manual of Style (16h ed.), par. 6.52. Sign up for a free 30-day online trial at

(Image at top courtesy of scottchan.)

Leave a comment


  1. You just gave me the topic for my next post. I’ll talk more about the em-dash then and how it differs from the hyphen and the en-dash. And yes, some people do put a space before and after it.

    As for Chicago, it’s shorthand for the Chicago Manual of Style, produced by the University of Chicago press. The 15th edition has 957 pages. It’s a very comprehensive reference work and recognized as something of an authority. The subtitle reads: “The Essential Guide for Writers, Editors, and Publishers.” It covers everything from the publishing process to punctuation, grammar, indexing, and more.

    I see that Kate Turabian (see link below) was also at the University of Chicago but I don’t know if she was involved in the CMOS. Her work is listed in the CMOS’s bibliography under references for general works on writing and editing. I assume CMOS is probably more comprehensive. Maybe somebody who knows her manual can comment?

  2. Ross Hay-Roe

     /  April 28, 2012

    Pretty brave, taking on the challenge of teaching editors how to edit. I wish you well.

    Regarding the em-dash (which I’d never heard of, although Lee has), your example of its usage looks to me like it needs spaces before and after. Or would that be just a regular dash? As someone who lives with a hyphen in his name, I’m very sensitive to hyphens and dashes, and the distinction between the two. And then, there’s something called (by some people) a long dash. Does Chicago know about that? And who’s this Chicago, anyway — I thought Kate Turabian was the go-to manual for this stuff?



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