Question for the grammar geeks

In fictional dialogue, when someone yells a question, do you include both the question mark and the exclamation mark? If both, what order are they in? My inclination is to make the question part paramount and put it second:

“What is this!?”

As opposed to:

“What is this?!”

Thoughts? Opinions? Official positions from grammar gurus?

40 thoughts on “Question for the grammar geeks

  1. Old school perhaps, but the rules I was taught:
    Periods and commas always go inside the quotation marks.
    Question marks (and exclamation points) go inside if the quotation itself is a question, but outside if the quotation is included in a sentence that is a question:
    Every time I go there I have to ask myself, “What will I pay?”
    He shouted, “Hurray!”
    Shall I delete these “unacceptable versions”?
    Yes! We have an “Officially Approved Version”!
    So I assume you’d follow the same kind of rules for using both:
    I can’t believe he yelled “Are you lying?”!
    Did someone yell “Fire!”?

  2. My understanding is, that if it is part of what the character is saying, it ALL goes inside the quotes. It only falls outside the quotes if it is part of the narration, as in
    Did Joe actually yell, “Fire!”?
    Is the narrator asking a question about what Joe yelled.
    But my character is both yelling and asking a question, so it all needs to go inside the quotations. My question is, which comes first, the exclamation point or the question mark? I can’t leave either out, or you lose something in what the character is expressing.

  3. Picks one or the other on a case by case basis. Sometimes alternate if there’s several sentence so I can have “What! How dare you?” for example

  4. Hmmm…I wonder if there’s a grammar book with an official statement on this for those short, concise sentences like, “What the hell is this?” It falls flat without an exclamation point, IMHO.

  5. on contrary, I think What the hell is this? doesn’t need an exclamation point because the fact it’s exclamative is already conveyed by the “the hell”
    I dunno what’s the genuine grammar rule, but having “?!” really doesn’t look… serious in a text. Would throw me out of it if the context isn’t already relatively casual.

  6. That’s part of the reason I’m asking. It looks a bit amateur, the kind of thing a young, inexperienced writer would do.

  7. I don’t see a rule for that anywhere. I suspect that it occurs only in informal writing and fiction, where you can make your own stylistic choices. If you publish, as I’m sure you’ve experienced, there’s going to be a copy editor to make those decisions.

  8. I think I’m basically agreeing with Etrangere–if you want it to look serious, you probably need to use the question mark and let the words carry the force of exclamation. I don’t recall ever seeing the two used together in conventional literature.

  9. This is for my old novel. I’m doing some final polishing before the copy editor reads it. The idea is to get as much grammatically and stylistically correct as I can, so that what they contribute is actually useful, as opposed to fixing things I could have fixed myself.

  10. Which is probably why I’m wondering about it. Most grammatical conventions I’ve already absorbed already through reading. This one…I don’t know because I haven’t seen it??

  11. I would say no, but it could depend on the personality of the speaking character and the genre, as well as the exact scene. I’d recommend using your instincts, and only use it if you really need to emphasize the tone of the question, and cannot manage it some other way without being awkward. I encounter it all the time in comic books, but it’s very rarely used elsewhere, in my experience. I’ve personally only used it in journal posts, to the best of my recollection.

  12. I’ve always used and seen “?!” used, because “?” is the more important part, identifying it as a question, and the exclamation mark is expanding on that, indicating the character’s tone.
    For example, “What is going on here!” is not right. “What’s going on here?” is. So, AFAIK, you do the question mark first and then punctuate it, so to speak with the “!”. “What’s going on here?!” Again, AFAIK, heh.

  13. I can’t point to a specific example, but as far as I recall, yes, I have. I found a wiki article here that says:
    “Many writers, especially in informal writing, have used multiple punctuation marks to end a sentence expressing surprise and question…The question mark frequently comes first (to emphasize that it is a question), although there is no universal style rule on the subject.”
    I would say that “formal” would indicate it’s inappropriate in an academic paper, but that in creative writing, it could be used, particularly in dialogue.

  14. The question mark comes first to emphasize it is a question. Hmmm. I put the question mark second for the exact same reason.

  15. I concur with Rob, though I can’t point to specific published examples either. Reading left to right, my eyes see the question mark first and signals to my brain the most important information, which is that I’m reading a question. The exclamation mark that comes after modifies the question.
    (Of course, the question mark comes last when you’re using ellipses at the end of your sentence, e.g. “What is your cat…?” Perhaps this is because the sentence trailing off is more important than the fact that it is a question? I don’t know.)
    In any case, I can tell you that, for me, reading “What the hell is this!?” requires an extra second to process that it is supposed to be a question, not a statement. Not sure how many readers would have the same issue.

  16. I guess I’m looking less at the gestalt visual impression and more as “A question has a question mark at the end, and this is more a question than an exclamation.”

  17. To me, in dialogue the main thing is to communicate the expression in the character’s voice. I think combining the 2 marks helps to do this. In fact, in a case like this, I wouldn’t use the question mark alone unless the only reason the character is yelling is to be heard & intends only to ask a question, & then I’d make the q. italic. I’ve seen both “?!” & “!?”; they do convey diff’t. things to me. I’d say it’s whether the desire for an answer or the anger predominates. And that’s a call only you can make. I also think if the character is angry enough, an exclamation point could be used by itself. The “What is…” beginning makes it clear that it’s a question.
    As for the interrobang (funny, I thought I’d seen it as “interabang,” although I don’t know why it would be spelled that way), it’s actually a single character combining the exclamation point & question mark, w/the exclamation point fitting under the curve of the q. mark. You can see it in the Merriam-Webster definition, which says it was “designed for use especially at the end of an exclamatory rhetorical question.” Hmm. I think that fits your example, but the interrobang never really caught on. I have one on a button, though!

  18. Hmmm…I was hoping you’d have the definitive answer, A. The character has anger issues, but she does want an answer as well. For now, I have it:
    Valerie had stalked into her office and slammed a manuscript down on Elizabeth’s desk, startling her. “What is this?” she demanded.
    so it remains a question, and her anger is conveyed in the italics, and in the description of her actions. But I imagine anyone within fifty feet could hear her loud and clear.

  19. That looks fine. Because the punctuation combos aren’t standard, they do remain open to interpretation. You say in an earlier comment that it’s “more a question than an exclamation” & that for you that means the question mark should go at the end. For me it looks more questiony if the question mark comes right after the last word. It’s a question 1st, so I would put the question mark 1st. But because it’s a judgment call, different people will read it differently. Then again, that’s true no matter what you do. I think your solution above is good. Sorry I can’t give the definitive answer you wanted, but sometimes there really isn’t one!

  20. It’s interesting that, in this case, there isn’t a definitive “grammar book” rule about combining punctuation marks in the same squib of dialogue, given the reaction of some to this post that it seems too “casual” and “colloquial” and not proper for published works.

  21. Well, I was really going off my experience & memory, w/out trying to look it up. But now I see that the Chicago Manual of Style does have a section on “Multiple Punctuation,” which is not what I’d have thought of calling it. It says, “When two different marks of punctuation are called for in the same sentence, the stronger mark only is retained,” & gives these examples: “Who shouted, ‘Up the establishment!'” & “‘Have you read the platform?’ asked Williams in distress.” So they wouldn’t use both marks at all (& therefore don’t need to address which would come 1st). The fact that they call it “stronger” seems to support the solution you used, & their 2nd example, w/its description of Williams’ tone, has something in common w/it. So there may not be a grammar rule, but there’s some style guidance!

  22. The problem with the second example is the lack of an exclamation mark makes the “distress” mentioned in the final word very tell-don’t-show. As a fiction writer, you strive for show-don’t-tell. You want your readers to see and hear (experience) the action as if they were there, you don’t want want to come across as relaying it second-hand.
    This is what gets me muddled every time I have to remove one of the punctuation marks.

  23. I know. That’s why I said it had “something” rather than “a lot” in common. I think your use of “demanded” comes closer to showing than the example’s “in distress.” Personally, I have no problem w/use of both marks, or the same mark twice, in dialogue or even narration.

  24. Personally, I have no problem w/use of both marks, or the same mark twice, in dialogue or even narration.
    The expert has spoken! : D

  25. Don’t do it. Editors will say over and over again they don’t like it. They barely like exclamation points at all. Use the question mark and an action dialogue tag to show the emphasis. It will be much stronger with the action showing the emphasis rather than cheating with punctuation.

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