Burnt-out Grad Student Seeks Grammar Help
July 23, 2009 1:16 PM   Subscribe

I want to ask several questions in a row in a research proposal. What is the grammatically correct way of doing this?

In a bit of a silly rhetorical flourish, I want to pose several questions in a row in a research proposal I am writing. At the moment I have written this in the following way:

"In my research I will seek to answer several questions: What is X? Where is Y? Who is Z?"

I did a rough Google search of similar constructions, and I've adhered to what seems to be the most popular standards. I still have some concerns, however:

- Should I end the first sentence with a colon or a period?

- If the first sentence ends with a colon, is it right to capitalize the 'W' in "Where"? I found a lot of such examples on-line, but I'm still not convinced it's the right thing to do.

- Can I add another sentence to the paragraph after the last question, or do I have to end it right then and there?

I would appreciate it if anyone who can cite a style guide when answering this. Also, one copy of this proposal will be going to the UK, while another stays in North America, if that makes a difference.
posted by hiteleven to Writing & Language (15 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
If you are introducing the questions you are going to ask rather than actually asking them, I don't think either is quite right for formal writing. Colons are definitely out: they're not appropriate for this usage. I think this is the right form:

What I will ask is "Where am I?", "How did I get here?", and "Where am I going?".

People may quibble over the placement of commas here. I'm going with my gut.

Or you can just ask the questions.

I will ask several questions. Where am I? How did I get here? Where am I going?

I can imagine stringing them together just with commas (or semicolons if any one of the questions contains a comma), but that strikes me as prone to misreading.
posted by adamrice at 1:29 PM on July 23, 2009

1. It is the first clause, not the first sentence. It should end with a colon.
2. Capitalize the "W."
3. You don't have to end the paragraph there, but if you do add another sentence, it should be pertinent to the rest of the paragraph. If it's a new topic, move on to the next paragraph.

This is just personal preference, but the construct you're proposing can be a lot to take in. If you have much more than a sentence to add, I'd think about creating a new paragraph even if it is directly related to your series of questions.

In response to adamrice's comment: I think this construct is appropriate -- you're introducing a series set off with a clause and a colon. This is not an unprofessional way to present a series of questions, and with this construct you avoid the messy punctuation problems of other constructs.
posted by runningwithscissors at 1:32 PM on July 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

First, you are allowed to do it just as you asked 3 questions here: with bullet points. If you don't want to do this for space reasons, you can do it as you did it or number the questions. The word that follows a colon gets a capital letter if it would constitute a complete sentence by itself (in your example it would). I don't see why you couldn't add another sentence.

That said, I think the best way to do this might be to give each question an explanatory paragraph. You probably already have this material in other places in the proposal, it's just a matter of moving them around. This has three advantages:

First, it solves your formatting problem. By giving each point it's own paragraph the "list-y-ness" of your question list is emphasized in a way that it's not if you put three sentences in a row.

Second, it puts related material together. Things that demonstrate the importance of your question and maybe even your hypotheses go with the question, which makes the proposal easier to follow and the significance of your research harder to miss.

Third, it does something else. The third advantage was suggested only so I could demonstrate the type of formatting I'm suggesting.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 1:33 PM on July 23, 2009

"In my research I will seek to answer several questions: What is X? Where is Y? Who is Z?"

Your current version is correct. Capitalize after a colon as long as the clause that follows is itself a complete sentence. As in:

I have to wonder: How did I get here?

I have to wonder: why?

I don't see why you couldn't add more sentences after the last sentence. (This is all according to my experience with American AP Style conventions; I can't speak to British ones.)
posted by Ladybug Parade at 1:37 PM on July 23, 2009

I actually like the way you have it now. Using a period after "several questions" would seem awkwardly stilted. A colon is entirely appropriate to introduce a more specific thought. I like to think of a colon as being like an arrow or index finger: the colon "points" to what it elucidates.

If you're doing it this way, then you're also right to capitalize "Where." One citation for this last point would be the Texas Manual of Usage and Style, which is often used for legal scholarship. That book specifically says you must capitalize the letter after a colon if the colon introduces multiple sentences. (In your case, the colon introduces three sentences -- three questions.) I think most usage books would probably go further and say to capitalize a letter after a colon when the material after the colon is a complete sentence (as runningwithscissors said).

I would particularly recommend not using quotation marks. That would seem too fussy. You're writing nonfiction prose and staying within your own voice -- you're not really quoting anyone.
posted by Jaltcoh at 1:42 PM on July 23, 2009

This depends more on what you are writing this proposal for, but if I were writing a proposal with multiple distinct components to it I would number or letter them so that I can clearly and easily refer to the different parts in the later sections of the proposal. For example:

The purpose of this research is to answer three main questions. (1) What is X? (2) What is Y? (3) What is Z?

I grant this may be more stylistic than technical.
posted by paralith at 1:47 PM on July 23, 2009

The Chicago Manual says, "Neither a period nor a comma ever accompanies a question mark or exclamation point." I can't find clarification on your other questions, but your consturction looks right to me.
posted by martens at 1:49 PM on July 23, 2009

I did pretty much what you have in my (successful) thesis/grant proposals. I added the word "interrelated" as in "my research will ask several interrelated questions" because I wanted to emphasize that I was not going of in a bunch of different directions. At my graduate advisor's suggestion, I also numbered the questions, even though it's a bit grammatically weird for conventional writing. So what I had looked like:

"In my research I will seek to answer several interrelated questions: 1. What is X? 2. Where is Y? 3. Who is Z?" Given that the questions were rather wordy sentences, this was a visually useful thing for people reading the proposal.

The most important thing to remember is that a good proposal is not going to get thrown out because of a minor grammatical oddness. Yes, all the proposal books say that you must be meticulous, and it is good to set yourself high standards. A proposal that is sloppy or shows a poor ability to communicate ideas through writing will have less of a chance, but stuff like whether to use a colon or a period and the associated capitalization is not going to make or break it. So do what seems best to you, focus on the clarity of the ideas and don't let yourself get too stressed about the obscurities of the grammar.
posted by carmen at 2:19 PM on July 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

I agree with Ladybug Parade and others: The way you have it is fine.

/professional copyeditor
posted by languagehat at 2:37 PM on July 23, 2009

Your proposed version looks fine for sending to the UK.
posted by Idcoytco at 2:47 PM on July 23, 2009

... and I would bow to languagehat's expertise in these matters.
posted by Idcoytco at 2:49 PM on July 23, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks for the help, everyone. Good to hear I'm basically on the right track.

carmen: I did indeed classify the questions as "related", though I didn't state that here. I am still struggling to keep this proposal from going off in different directions.
posted by hiteleven at 3:51 PM on July 23, 2009

I think what you have is perfect, actually. It looks good, and the punctuation reads aloud properly and without hiccups.

Without the colon, it's not 100% guaranteed that the questions that follow are the questions that you were just saying you'd be asking. It would almost universally be assumed, but why not make it ironclad with the colon?

However, it did immediately strike me that "several" implies five or more things. Since it would be silly to say "a few," why not "three questions"? Unless the three were just for posing the AskMe question and you do in fact have a longer string of questions in your paper.
posted by thebazilist at 4:51 PM on July 23, 2009

Response by poster: thebazilist: good question about "several", as I do in fact have only three questions (I did have others in my first draft, but 4+ seemed excessive).

By definition, "several" is anything more than two, as far as I know, even though it seems to connote 5,6,7+ to most people. I don't want to limit myself and say "three questions", however, as I want to leave open the possibility that I will answer other, similar questions to the three that I include in the proposal. The three I do list are closely related, and my proposal suggests that other similar questions could be asked.
posted by hiteleven at 5:05 PM on July 23, 2009

You can structure it as "what is X, what is Y and where is Z?" - make it a compound question instead of stating it clumsily as three separate questions...

If they are three separate and independent questions, or even merely not strongly related, then I wouldn't try to combine them into a single sentence-like structure anyway. Can you state a generalisation over all the questions ("I am enquiring into field Q, specifically:") and then state each question in a bullet point?

Bullet points are awesome but my PhD was in a technical field and the expected styles are likely different if you're doing postmodern interpretive feminism or something.
posted by polyglot at 6:08 PM on July 23, 2009

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