Learn English – “Scare quotes” and placement of question mark–inside or outside

punctuationquestion markquotation marks

Consider the following sentence:

Did you know you can donate "stuff"?

"Stuff" in this case means "anything besides cash." It's the lead-in to an article informing users on a charity's website that they can gift things like stocks, bonds, vehicles, real estate, commodities, jewelry, and other non-cash assets.

The APA Style Guide says to put question marks:

  • Inside, if question mark or exclamation point is part of quoted material
  • Outside, if question mark or exclamation point is not part of quoted material

What makes me uncertain about my example sentence is that I'm not sure how to properly apply the "quoted material" test. It seems to me that the quote marks are being used here as scare quotes, to signal unusual usage, or perhaps it's nonstandard usage where a typographic change, like italicizing or bolding, would be more appropriate.

In any case, the bottom line is the quotes are not being used to denote "quoted material," at least in the sense of "material that is being quoted from elsewhere." This APA rule seems to be only addressing that type of quotation mark usage. So I'm not sure whether the question marks should go inside or outside the quote marks.

The simplest "solution" is to interpret "quoted material" to mean anything that is in quote marks, whether or not clearly a quote of content from another author or location. Is this an appropriate interpretation?

I'm particularly interested in references to reputable sources that address this question. Thank you!

Best Answer

The APA Style Guide is not a legal text trying to cover all bases in a final way. You are quoting the word stuff in the sense that you are putting quotation marks around it. Unless you are quoting the question Stuff?, the question mark is obviously not part of the quoted material.

Also, the APA Style Guide is only for dubious cases. Since there was never a typographic tradition of putting large punctuation such as question marks inside the quotation marks when they don't logically belong there, the question doesn't even arise for question marks in the first place and so naturally the APA Style Guide was not written with the intent of settling it. (The tradition of putting periods and commas inside the quotation marks was originally in order to put them closer to an alphabetic letter so as to protect the delicate (physical) letter/type/sort against breaking off. It is only by inertia that some style guides still require it now that the necessity no longer exists. To the extent that there is an optical problem, a thin negative space that could be applied automatically would be a better solution.) It's just an accident that the APA Style Guide can be interpreted so as to yield the correct result.