5.6.2 Stops, Question Marks and Exclamation Marks

Full stops. Also called ‘full points’ or ‘periods’ (the latter particularly in American English), full stops are primarily used to mark the end of complete declarative and imperative sentences. A full stop also appears at the end of complete bibliographical references in most referencing styles (see Chapter 7 below), though in many cases the stop is omitted if the reference ends with a URL or digital object identifier (DOI). In informal writing, a full stop is often used at the end of ‘sentences’ that are technically incomplete, but such incomplete sentences should not be a feature of a thesis except to represent quoted speech, interviews and the like accurately. A single full stop is all the punctuation needed to close a sentence, so if an abbreviation ending with a stop (see Section 6.3.2 on the use of full stops in abbreviations) or any other expression that takes a full stop on its own appears at the end of a sentence, no additional stop is necessary: ‘School starts at 8 a.m.’ is correct, not ‘School starts at 8 a.m..’ A stop is generally not used at the end of displayed lines of text such as titles, headings, subheadings, running headings and short captions, but paragraph or run-in headings, such as the one in bold font at the beginning of this paragraph, do take a full stop (or in some cases, a colon; see Section 5.6.1 and Section 6.1) and, if the paragraph heading is set in a special font, the stop often appears in the same font as the heading. 

Sometimes a full stop appears at the end of table headings and figure captions, particularly if they are long or consist of more than one sentence (in the latter case, the full stop is usually necessary), and if the stop is required for one or more table headings or figure captions in a thesis, it is often used on all of them to maintain consistency. A single space, not two, should follow a full stop, except when the stop appears in a URL or email address, in which case no space should follow the stop. When an entire sentence is enclosed either in parentheses or square brackets, the full stop should be placed within the parentheses or brackets, as it is in the final sentence of this paragraph; otherwise, the full stop should follow any parentheses or brackets that appear within a sentence. (For the placement of full stops in relation to quotations and quotation marks, and for the use of triple stops or ellipsis points, see Chapter 8)

Question marks. Question marks have two main functions in formal prose: to mark questions, queries or interrogative speech, and to suggest uncertainty or disbelief. A question mark appears in the position of a full stop at the end of a direct question, whether or not the question actually forms a complete sentence: ‘Does she always visit the library at ten o’clock?’ and ‘Why?’ are both valid questions, though ‘Why did he write that?’ or something of the sort is preferable in scholarly writing to the single-word form. Additional closing punctuation (such as a full stop) is not necessary and double question marks to express confusion (??) should not be used in formal prose. Generally, a question mark is followed by a capital letter and a new sentence, but if a question is embedded in a sentence, the sentence can continue with a lowercase letter after the question mark: ‘He asked her, how will the changes affect the thesis? but she did not answer’ (please note that Word will want to change the lowercase ‘b’ in ‘but’ into a capital – indeed, it will want to change any letter after a question mark or other terminal punctuation into a capital – so do watch for that and correct it if necessary). If the question represents direct speech (and in some styles direct thought as well), it should appear in quotation marks (single or double) and usually begins with a capital: ‘“What happened?” she cried’ and ‘“What happened?” she wondered’ (on quotations and quotation marks, see Chapter 8).

Indirect questions, on the other hand, are simply blended into sentences and no question marks are needed: ‘He asked why no one had made the sandwiches’ and ‘She wanted to know what had happened.’ A question mark is also not used in most phrases that are worded as questions through courtesy but are in fact not quite real questions: ‘Could I ask you to open the window’ and ‘Will everyone please rise.’ Both of these would normally close with a full stop, though as New Hart’s Rules notes (Ritter, 2005, Section 4.8.1), ‘a question mark can seem more polite than a full point’ – a good thing to remember when making written requests of your supervisor or other committee members. When a question mark is used in conjunction with quotation marks, parentheses or square brackets (see Section 5.6.5 and Chapter 8), it should appear inside the quotation marks, parentheses or brackets only if it is actually part of the quoted or parenthetical material: for example, ‘It may be November, but it was as warm as summer yesterday (can you believe it?),’ but ‘What did he mean when he said, “Without patients, the hospital would run much more efficiently”?’

A question mark is often used in scholarly writing immediately before or after a word, phrase, date or other element of a sentence, list or table to express uncertainty or doubt (A massive storm hit the region in the fall of 1479? and appears to have resulted in extensive flooding). If the question mark in such situations would interfere with or confuse the punctuation of the sentence, it should be enclosed in parentheses: ‘in the fall of 1479(?).’ In both cases, no space should appear between the question mark and the material you are uncertain about, and the same is the case if a question mark is used in this way to express sarcasm or produce a humorous effect: ‘My friends? didn’t bother to find me before they left, so I had to take a cab home from the nightclub.’ There are more complex ways of using spacing with question marks to indicate exactly which elements of a sentence, date or claim are in doubt (Ritter, 2005, Section 4.8.2 discusses these), but they are often difficult for readers to decipher, so a far better policy when writing a thesis is to explain exactly what the uncertainty is and/or why it exists: ‘A massive storm hit the region in the fall – records suggest that it was 1479 – and appears to have resulted in extensive flooding.’ When question marks are used with dates (much as when an abbreviation for circa is used with dates), they should be carefully placed, and your meaning will be clearest if the dates are not elided: for example, in ‘1535?–1547’ the first date is clearly in doubt; in ‘1535–1547?’ it is probably the second date that is in doubt; in ‘1535?–1547?’ both dates are in doubt; but exactly what is meant by ‘1535–47?’ is unclear. Remember, too, that a question mark used with a date tends to indicate that the date suggested is probable, so its meaning is slightly different from that of circa (on which, see Section 6.3.11).

Exclamation marks. Exclamation marks, also known as ‘exclamation points’ (predominantly in American English), are used as closing punctuation after emphatic statements, direct commands, emotional interjections or outcries and ironic comments: examples include ‘Oh no! I forgot to turn off the lights!’ and ‘Look out!’ Like a question mark, an exclamation mark performs the function of a full stop, so no additional punctuation is necessary to close a sentence, and using multiple exclamation marks to intensify a statement is not advisable in formal scholarly prose. An exclamation mark may have a place in parentheses within a thesis to emphasise or comment in a small way on surprising or striking results or behaviours, in which case it should appear up against the relevant information just as a parenthetical question mark expressing uncertainty does: ‘The men’s and women’s scores were average, but the children’s scores all exceeded 35(!), the highest score ever achieved before this trial.’ Such use – indeed, all use – of exclamation marks should be sparing, however, because overuse will diminish the effect and produce an unprofessional appearance.

An exclamation mark should never be added even in square brackets to a quotation to express ‘editorial protest or amusement’ because this can come across as condescending and ‘contemptuous’ (Chicago Manual of Style, 2003, p.260). When a question is so emphatic that it is more exclamation than question, an exclamation mark is generally used instead of a question mark: ‘Will he never learn!’ is a good example. As is the case with a question mark, an exclamation mark used in conjunction with quotation marks, parentheses or square brackets (see Section 5.6.5 and Chapter 8) should appear inside the quotation marks, parentheses or brackets only if it is actually part of the quoted or parenthetical material: ‘I discovered (much to my chagrin!) that I was being paid half of what other nurses were earning,’ but ‘I worked for days to polish my thesis and my external examiner actually had the audacity to say, “It doesn’t look like you proofread this at all”!’

Why PhD Success?

To Graduate Successfully

This article is part of a book called "PhD Success" which focuses on the writing process of a phd thesis, with its aim being to provide sound practices and principles for reporting and formatting in text the methods, results and discussion of even the most innovative and unique research in ways that are clear, correct, professional and persuasive.

The assumption of the book is that the doctoral candidate reading it is both eager to write and more than capable of doing so, but nonetheless requires information and guidance on exactly what he or she should be writing and how best to approach the task. The basic components of a doctoral thesis are outlined and described, as are the elements of complete and accurate scholarly references, and detailed descriptions of writing practices are clarified through the use of numerous examples.

The basic components of a doctoral thesis are outlined and described, as are the elements of complete and accurate scholarly references, and detailed descriptions of writing practices are clarified through the use of numerous examples. PhD Success provides guidance for students familiar with English and the procedures of English universities, but it also acknowledges that many theses in the English language are now written by candidates whose first language is not English, so it carefully explains the scholarly styles, conventions and standards expected of a successful doctoral thesis in the English language.

Individual chapters of this book address reflective and critical writing early in the thesis process; working successfully with thesis supervisors and benefiting from commentary and criticism; drafting and revising effective thesis chapters and developing an academic or scientific argument; writing and formatting a thesis in clear and correct scholarly English; citing, quoting and documenting sources thoroughly and accurately; and preparing for and excelling in thesis meetings and examinations. 

Completing a doctoral thesis successfully requires long and penetrating thought, intellectual rigour and creativity, original research and sound methods (whether established or innovative), precision in recording detail and a wide-ranging thoroughness, as much perseverance and mental toughness as insight and brilliance, and, no matter how many helpful writing guides are consulted, a great deal of hard work over a significant period of time. Writing a thesis can be an enjoyable as well as a challenging experience, however, and even if it is not always so, the personal and professional rewards of achieving such an enormous goal are considerable, as all doctoral candidates no doubt realise, and will last a great deal longer than any problems that may be encountered during the process.

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