Many people read on the train. Or at least they hold up a book or newspaper while they eavesdrop on a stranger’s cellphone conversation. I can’t. If a single printed word passes in front of my eyes I’ll be in no position to criticize the Lindsay Lohan-smelling guy.
Instead, I think. And one of the topics I think about is punctuation. Specifically, I worry that I’ll come across a sentence I don’t know how to punctuate. (Laugh if you must, but it helps blot out the Justin Timberlake song blaring out of earbuds of the iPod next to me.)
For example, most of us know how to use a period to form a sentence. Most of us know how to use a question mark to form a question. But put one inside the other and a lot of us get scared.
Say you’re writing a novel about a superhero whose superpower is that she rides the train and survives. You might have occasion to put a question such as, “What did this guy have for lunch?” within a larger sentence that ends with, “Metrorella wondered.” Where would the question mark go? Would there be one at all?
Question marks are usually thought of as “terminal punctuation” — “terminal” meaning sentence-ending (or the place where a train takes you, or many of the things you can catch if you touch the handrail). Therefore, a lot of people think it can’t go in the middle of a sentence.
Not so. “A question mark is used within a sentence at the end of a direct question,” according to the “Chicago Manual of Style,” the go-to authority for most editors in the book-publishing world.
“What did this guy have for lunch? Metrorella wondered.”