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February 2011

Well, you asked!

Norm S. asked: If I wanted to use the expression “run the gamut” in a question, would I write it as “Hey, do you think we can “run the gamut?” I’ve see writers do it differently, like ... “run the gamut”?

Steph: There’s a one-eyed ogre roaring at the end of your sentence. First, the expression run the gamut needs to be caged in a set of its own quotation marks—in this case, a set of single quotation marks since it’s inside a set of double quotation marks (they always alternate when squeezing inside each other).

Second, run the gamut isn’t a question, so no question mark should accompany it inside the single quote marks. But Hey, do you think . . . is a question, so a question mark should accompany it inside its set of double quote marks. To evict the ogre, write your sentence as “Hey, do you think we can ‘run the gamut’?” Ahhhh, listen—no more roaring!


Wordsmithing: The Monster Waiting at the End

I don’t suppose you’ve ever contemplated how many punctuation marks can end a fiction writer’s sentences. Sigh. Oh, c’mon, you use the marks every day—let loose, have fun, and count them! And while you’re at it, figure out the max number of punctuation marks that can line up at the end of a sentence.

Got the answers? See, I told you it was fun!


What isn’t fun is when there’s a monster waiting at the end of your sentence. A horrid, spittle-drooling question like how many ellipsis points and spaces are correct, or, s-h-r-i-e-k, how to braid that ugly dreadlock of multiple end marks.

Taming the wild things


First, the lone punctuation marks. No doubt you’ve already domesticated the solo period, dash, question mark, and exclamation point at the end of a sentence. That leaves only the teeth-baring ellipsis.

The ellipsis (a set of three dots) is used in fiction to show faltering or interrupted speech, usually in the context of confusion or insecurity. Ellipses bare their teeth and snarl because grammar gurus fight over how the three dots should present themselves. Some say as three spaced dots, as in I don’t know . . . Others say use no spaces: I don’t know … (Yep, there is a space between the end of the sentence and the ellipsis.)

Yeah, total sympathy—makes you want to bite the gurus too, huh! Best advice? Rarely use an ellipsis at the end of a sentence (a fiction writer has little call to do so), and whichever way you choose to do your ellipsis, do it consistently throughout your manuscript.

The King Kong of end marks is the horrid dreadlock of multiple punctuation marks.

Multiple marks make a muddle

The King Kong of end marks is the horrid dreadlock of multiple punctuation marks. Which punctuation comes first in the lineup, which last, and which in the middle?

In fiction, the setting for this monster is dialogue containing a quote within a quote. Perhaps the scene is a court trial and the witness is sworn to tell all. Or the scene involves Ms. Gossip spilling the beans. On which side of the closing single quotation mark does end punctuation go? (I’m excluding parentheses and brackets, as they mainly prey on non-fiction writers.)

To punctuate correctly, think of the two sets of quotation marks as two cages, one within the other. Start with the innermost cage (the set of single quotation marks) and place its quote inside, including any tag-along punctuation such as a question mark if the quote is a question, or an exclamation point if the quote is an exclamation. Then do the same with the larger cage (double quotation marks) and include the punctuation appropriate for it.

  • Ted said, “Suzy asked, ‘Who’s that?’” (Question mark is in the innermost cage, ‘Who’s that?’)
  • Ted asked, “Did Suzy say, ‘Goodbye’?” (Question mark is in the outermost cage since Ted asked the question. What Suzy said—‘Goodbye’—isn’t a question.)
Same applies to exclamation points:
  • Ted said, “Suzy yelled, ‘Run!’”
  • Ted screamed, “Suzy said ‘Yes’!”

Muddling the muddle of multiple marks

The monster spits syntax-searing flames when two question marks or two exclamation points, or shudder a mixture of the two, need to be caged. Best to stuff them into a dungeon and let them fight it out somewhere other than inside your sentence. But if you gotta cage them, get it right:

  • Ted asked, “Did Suzy say, ‘Who’s that?’?” (Question mark is in each cage.)
  • Ted screamed, “Suzy yelled, ‘Run!’!” (Exclamation point is in each cage.)
  • Ted asked, “Did Suzy scream, ‘Run!’?” (Exclamation point is in the innermost cage and question mark is in the outermost cage.)

Fortunately, the other punctuation marks come ready-caged. A solo period, end dash, and end ellipsis always precede the closing single quote mark. Yep, always (except a mutant or two). 

Beastly punctuation can frighten off readers, so fiction writers typically limit themselves to a line-up of no more than three, at the most four, end punctuation marks. Avoid them if you can, but if you have to deal with those monsters, a cage is about the only way to get them eating out of your hand.

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