With the possible exception of the Oxford/Harvard/serial comma, very few usage issues elicit responses as passionate as the topic of punctuating with quotation marks.
American vs. British Conventions
If I were in charge of writing the rules about the use of quotation marks, American style books would revise their conventions to mirror those of the British. That is, we would use single quotation marks where we now use doubles and doubles where we now use singles.
We would also, then, put periods and commas outside quotation marks instead of inside.
But, sadly, I’m not in charge. At least for now, we here in the U.S. are stuck with our double quotation marks and our counter-intuitive conventions about punctuating with them.
With apologies to those of you living outside the U.S., this article focuses on the American style of using primarily double quotation marks and singles only when we have a quotation within a quotation.
How Much Do You Already Know?
Each of these sentences contains an error (according to American usage conventions) involving punctuation near closing quotation marks:
- The suspect told the arresting officer, “I was nowhere near the crime”.
- “Walk to the corner”, she explained to the child, “and turn left”.
- John said, “I have just finished reading Browning’s ‘My Last Duchess’.”
- The woman screamed to her son, “Stop pulling the dog’s tail”!
- What did you do when Paul said, “You can pay for dinner tonight?”
In the American system, periods and commas always go inside quotation marks (i.e., single AND double). Thus, sentences 1, 2, and 3 should look like this:
- The suspect told the arresting officer, “I was nowhere near the crime.”
- “Walk to the corner,” she explained to the child, “and turn left.”
- John said, “I have just finished reading Browning’s ‘My Last Duchess.'”
Keep in mind that periods and commas go inside even if only the last word in a sentence is in quotation marks and even when we have single quotation marks inside of double:
- We were sorry to see that the sign on the door said “Closed.”
- She wrote in her diary, “Everywhere we looked we found signs that read ‘Closed.'”
Question marks and exclamation points can go inside OR out, depending on the meaning of the sentence in question. Thus, sentences 4 and 5 should look like this:
- The woman screamed to her son, “Stop pulling the dog’s tail!”
- What did you do when Paul said, “You can pay for dinner tonight”?
In sentence 4, the part of the sentence that is being exclaimed (“Stop pulling the dog’s tail!”) is the part inside the quotation marks, so the exclamation point belongs there. In sentence 5, the larger sentence is the question (What did you do. . . ?), not the part inside the quotation marks, so the question mark belongs outside.
What About Quotation Marks Other Than Those Indicating Dialogue?
In all cases of usage involving quotation marks (again, American usage, not British), commas and periods always go inside the quotation marks while semicolons and colons always go outside.
Here is an example using a list of titles:
This month’s issue of Grammar Guru magazine contains articles titled “Making Every Comma Count,” “Punctuate or Perish,” and “The Write Way.”
Notice that the commas separating the titles are inside the quotation marks.
(Elsewhere on this site we address the question of whether to use italics/underlining or quotation marks with the titles of works, such as novels, movies, articles, stories, and so forth.)
We should also place periods and commas inside quotation marks used in other situations, such as to suggest that a word is being used in a special or ironic sense, to show that we are referring to a word as a word, or to mark the definition of a word or words:
- A three-hundred-pound gorilla eats quite a few “snacks,” so the zoo keeper must closely monitor the animal’s daily intake.
- A lottery ticket holder who breaks even is counted as a “winner”; thus, statistics about one’s odds of winning are misleading.
- Sam sprinkles his conversations with the word “amen,” although he really pays very little attention to what other people are saying.
- The Latin verb “duco” means “to lead,” “to consider,” or “to prolong.”
Note that in the last example, we could have set the word duco in italic type rather than enclosing it in quotation marks, but we want to be consistent throughout a document.
Also note that italics or underlining—not quotation marks—should be used to emphasize a word or phrase. We all know someone who overuses quotation marks (or, worse yet, overuses air quotes in oral conversations).
How would you punctuate the following sentences?
- Bill asked Sandra, “Will you marry me”
- Margaret read a magazine article titled “Living in the Country;” four days later she sold her house in the suburbs and moved to a farm.
- Did Sandra say to Bill, “We can be married in April”
- The instructor read the class three poems by Robert Frost: “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” “Design,” and “Directive.”
- The director thundered furiously to the actors, “We are not leaving until everyone knows his or her lines “
- Sarina’s father is the most eccentric man I know, but Sarina excuses his behavior as “artistic license”.
- The librarian whispered emphatically to us, “The sign on the wall says ‘Quiet'”
(Answers are below.)
- Bill asked Sandra, “Will you marry me?”
- “Living in the Country”;
- Did Sandra say to Bill, “We can be married in April”?
- The director thundered furiously to the actors, “We are not leaving until everyone knows his or her lines!”
- “artistic license.”
- The librarian whispered to us, “The sign on the wall says ‘Quiet.'” [The period goes inside the double AND the single quotation marks.]
©2001 Get It Write. Revised 2019