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Bar Association of San Francisco Member Benefits: Publications

Legal Writing Tip: Questions in Question in Your Writing?

 

By Leslie A. Gordon, BASF Bulletin Contributor

 

Formatting and punctuating questions can be tricky. While I recommend avoiding rhetorical questions (one journalism professor taught me: it’s the answer – not the question – that’s important), sometimes questions are necessary in legal writing.

Here are some tips:

Direct questions are simple: a question followed by a question mark.

Why did the judge rule that way?

Don’t use a question mark for indirect questions.

I wonder why he withdrew the offer.

Sentences can be a direct-indirect mixture.

The question is, who owns the car?

In that case, put a comma after the indirect question and a question mark after the direct question. Or flip it, which can look funky.

Who owns the car? Is the question.

In mixed cases, capitalizing the beginning of the second part is optional. Consider a colon.

The question is: Who owns the car?

When questions are strung together, with some not even complete sentences, the rules aren’t clear so use your judgment. I vote for capitalizing the sentence-like part.

Can I have one hundred dollars? Two hundred?

Tag questions – such as “did you” and “isn’t it” – require question marks.

You didn’t sign the contract, did you?

If your sentence could be characterized as a question and something else – like an exclamation – pick the dominant punctuation mark. (While trendy on Facebook and in emails, don’t double up on marks).

What do you mean he’s up for parole?

Here are rules for questions and quotations comingling:

If the whole sentence is a question, the question mark goes outside the quotation marks.

Who said “All good things come to those who wait”?

However, if the quotation is a question, but the sentence is not, the question mark goes inside.

The defendant approached the plaintiff and said, “Why won’t you sell?”

If you find yourself in an uber complicated question scenario, simply rework the sentence.

Contact leslie.gordon@stanfordalumni.org with comments or column ideas.


 

A former lawyer, Leslie A. Gordon is a freelance journalist living in San Francisco.

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