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Should the "ask" be in an "ing" form? Consider the following conversation,

A: I think I can ask a question on Stack Exchange.
B: What do you mean by ask a question?

Should I convert the verb into a gerund? It seems that the verb differs from the gerund, and if B does the conversion, it doesn't quote A exactly. Something changes.

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As "B" is quoting "A" directly, in written English you should place quote marks

What do you mean by "ask a question"?

In speech there are intonation and rhythmic indicators of this structure.

You shouldn't change it to "asking". If you say "What do you mean by asking a question?" it means "What is your purpose in asking a question". It doesn't ask about the words that A spoke, but asks why "A" asked a question. That doesn't make sense (because A didn't ask a question!)

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    +1, though to clarify one thing that may not be obvious from this example: You can write "What do you mean by 'ask a question'?", with the bare infinitive form ask, even if the other person used a different form such as asking or asked. Conversely, you could express the same idea with something like "What do you consider to be 'asking a question'?", where we change the form to 'asking' to fit the surrounding grammar. In other words: the use of quotation marks doesn't always preclude changing the verb form. – ruakh Mar 28 at 19:26
  • The use of the bare infintive follows entirely from the use "can ask". Can is followed by an infinitive so when quoting you repeat that. If another form is used you would repeat that form: "Asking a question on Stackexchange might help you" -- "What do you mean "asking a question"?" The use of direct quotes implies direct quotation, with no changes to verb or noun forms. – James K Mar 28 at 19:42
  • Quotation marks around a single term to be discussed or defined don't necessarily imply that, no, except in registers such as academic writing and legal writing. – ruakh Mar 28 at 19:59
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    I'm not sure why you say that "'use/mention' quotes" don't apply here. In the OP's example, one speaker uses a phrase, and the other speaker mentions that phrase in the course of asking what the first speaker meant by it. That's a classic example of the use-mention distinction. – ruakh Mar 28 at 20:05
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    It's when we refer to a term, not necessarily a single word. In the OP's example, "ask a question" has a specific meaning, or at least, person B believes that person A means something specific by it. (Also, it's not entirely accurate to draw a bright line around different uses of quotation marks as if they were unrelated and have no overlap. Quotation marks are used in a variety of closely related ways, with blurry conventions at the margins. Direct verbatim quotations are just one extreme end of the range of uses -- and even there, you'd be surprised how much newspapers edit them.) – ruakh Mar 28 at 21:53

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