Puncuating a list of quesitons in a sentence


How should the following sentence be punctuated?


Only the Bible offers answers that make sense to the age-old questions “Who is man?”  “Why is he here?”  “What is the meaning of life?”

asked Apr 14 '12 at 21:41 lesley sturm New member

This answer was very helpful. Thank you so much.

lesley sturmApr 16 '12 at 19:28

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3 answers


This is a tough question. It appears to be a matter of editorial style rather than a rule of grammar. Even so, the two guides I have handy this afternoon -- Chicago Manual of Style and MLA Stylebook -- do not address the question directly and provide vague and sometimes internally contradictory advice.  In both, I first tracked down all of the advice about question marks and then colons.


The best answer appears to be the sentence(s) is/are almost correct as presented. Because each of the questions is a complete sentence, and because the introduction is also a complete sentence, end "age-old quesions" with a period. Then you have four complete sentences, properly punctuated -- although the quotation marks are not necessary according to both Chicago and MLA.


" ... age-old questions. Who is man?  Why is he here?  What is the meaning of life?"


On the other hand, if the questions were all incomplete sentence fragments -- who? what? why? -- the style manual advice becomes even more vague. Chicago and MLA accept the use of an isolated sentence fragment, such as "why?" for emphasis. So a period after "questions" still would be appropriate.  But Chicago also suggests (and I didn't look in MLA) that a colon or em-dash could follow "questions" and the three question fragments would follow, but lower case.


" ... age-old questions. Who? What? Why?"  or " ... age-old questions: who? what? why?"


I like the way the second looks, but can offer no other justification for that preference.

link comment edited Apr 15 '12 at 00:19 Jeff Pribyl Grammarly Fellow

I think that at least the Chicago Manual of Style (CMoS) does provide clear guidelines on this, unlike what Jeff says (and what it suggests is, I think, fairly universally followed). I cite CMoS section numbers from the 15th edition in what follows.


In summary, the standard punctuation would be

Only the Bible offers answers that make sense to the age-old questions: Who is man? Why is he here? What is the meaning of life?

but it feels a bit overbearing and abrupt with the questions as separate sentences. I'd be tempted to make them clauses in a list, which also raises some more interesting punctuation aspects.

Only the Bible offers answers that make sense to the age-old questions: who is man? why is he here? and what is the meaning of life?

There are four aspects:


(i) The part up to "questions" is a complete sentence, and the three questions are a list which is "illustrating or amplifying" the part before. Thus you absolutely want a colon (CMoS 6.63).


(ii) If you keep the questions as separate sentences, then the colon introduces two or more full sentences and so they need capitalisation (CMoS 6.64), and the question marks end each sentence. If you go for the clauses route, then you wouldn't capitalise each question (CMoS 6.64), and

the question marks punctuate the list of questions themselves (i.e., you don't need commas and periods as well) because a period or comma never accompanies a question mark or exclamation point: "The latter two marks, being stronger, take precedence over the first two" (CMoS 6.123).


(iii) The quotes are not needed because these are "Commonly known facts, proverbs, and other familiar expressions" where the wording is not "taken directly from another work" (CMoS 11.5).

If these three questions were stated specifically by someone then you are citing them and (only) then would you use quotes, such as

Only the Bible offers answers that make sense to the age-old questions posed by Smith: "who is man?" "why is he here?" and "what is the meaning of life?"

NB: If they weren't questions, you'd have to worry about whether you're using the US-centric standard with punctuation always inside the quotes (CMoS 6.8), or the alternative UK-centric version (CMoS 6.10)—which I prefer—where punctuation marks always occur outside quotes (except when they're part of the quoted material). For example, CMoS (6.123) gives an example for the US style:

Her favorite songs are "Hello Dolly!" "Chicago," and "Come with Me."

In alternative style this would be

Her favourite songs are "Hello Dolly!", "Chicago", and "Come with Me".

(Using an Oxford comma and being unable to resist 'correcting' "favorite" to its UK spelling :-) It's arguable that the first comma should not be there because the exclamation point takes precedence (CMoS 6.123 again), but there is now a quote between and it looks very 'unbalanced' to me without it when using this UK-centric style.)

link comment edited Mar 03 '15 at 10:56 Stuart Rossiter New member

Did anyone notice the typos in the title?

link comment answered Nov 18 '15 at 01:50 Diahann New member

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