Grammar

Placing Punctuation with Quotation Marks

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If there’s one thing I see people struggling with in my real job’s copyediting component, it’s how to place punctuation around quotation marks.

Do punctuation marks go inside or outside of quotation marks? The easy answer is this: It depends on the punctuation.

Unfortunately, there’s no single rule that applies here. So we’ll look at a couple of different types of punctuation marks and how they properly interact with quotation marks.

I should mention one important note. This post applies rules governing quotation marks in American English. British English may have different rules. I don’t want to confuse anyone, so I wanted to stress that right away.

Commas

When we quote someone, we separate the actual quote from the rest of the sentence with a comma.

Consider:

Jean said, “I hate going grocery shopping.”

The comma goes after said to separate the attribution from the actual quote.

Note that in that example, since the quote ended the sentence, a single period goes inside the quote.

Sometimes we paraphrase something someone says. In that case, you don’t need a comma or quotes:

Jean said she hates to go grocery shopping.

When it comes to news writing, I generally dislike starting with attribution. So I’d rewrite the sentence this way:

“I hate going grocery shopping,” Jean said.

Again, the comma separates the actual quote from the attribution. In this case, the comma goes inside the quotes, not outside.

Sometimes a quoted passage might run longer than a single sentence. I try to break up long passages of quotes with attribution fairly early. That way, the reader doesn’t get lost wondering who’s speaking:

“I hate going grocery shopping,” Jean said. “There’s never a place to park and there’s always such a big crowd at that store.”

Yes, I could have placed the attribution after the last quote. Regardless, the comma goes inside the quote and before the attribution. It stays in one paragraph because the same person is still speaking.

If a different speaker said the second line, you’d start a new paragraph.

But you have to remember the key takeaway about commas: they go inside quotation marks.

Periods

Periods work the same way commas do in American English. They go inside that closing quotation mark.

Jerry said, “I just put the file on my boss’s desk.”

Don’t put the comma after the closing quote. That doesn’t work.

Just as before, if you’re splitting multiple sentences, you’d still place the last period before the last quote mark:

“The project was due by 5 p.m.,” Jerry said. “I just put the file on my boss’s desk.”

Simple enough, right?

Exclamation points and question marks

Here’s where things get a bit complicated.

For one thing, if you’re ending a quote with either an exclamation point or a question mark, you don’t use a comma as well.

“Could you tell which water bottle was leaking?” Doris asked.

Some may find it a bit awkward because the question mark makes it look as if the sentence should end with the word leaking. But that’s the way it’s supposed to look.

But there are times when the exclamation point or question mark might go outside of the quotation marks.

To determine when that’s the case, you have to consider what’s being quoted.

If what you’re quoting is itself a question or an exclamation, the mark goes inside the quotation mark. If what you’re quoting is not itself a question or exclamation, it goes outside.

Consider these examples:

The man yelled, “Hey!” just in time for Jenna to look up and see the speeding car.

When John asked, “Can you bring me the bottle?” didn’t you think he needed help?

In those two examples, the quoted material needed the punctuation within the quotation marks because those marks were part of the quote.

But here’s an example of the opposite:

Did Joan really mean it when she said, “I’ll get you the tickets tonight”?

It may look a bit awkward, but you have to keep in mind that Joan’s quote wasn’t a question. Joan made a statement. The person asking what she meant by the quote is including Joan’s words (as a statement) as part of a question.

The same would apply for an exclamation that includes a quote that wasn’t itself an exclamation.

Quotes within quotes

Here’s another quote quagmire: What do you do when you quote someone who’s quoting someone else? The inner quote receives single quotes and the outer quote receives the traditional quotes.

“Thomas Jefferson never said, ‘Give me liberty or give me death,’” Professor Morris said.

Patrick Henry’s famous quote was almost certainly an exclamation. So it could also have been written this way:

“Thomas Jefferson never said, ‘Give me liberty or give me death!’” Professor Morris said.

But in both cases, the famous line is surrounded by single quotation marks and the full quote in which it appears is marked with double quotation marks.


I hope that clears up a little confusion on how to use punctuation with quotation marks.

2 Comments

  1. Thanks, Patrick. I never think it looks right when I add a comma or period after question and exclamation marks that immediately precede the final quotation mark. But, it still doesn’t feel right without a comma or period, either. I guess I’ll have to put my feelings aside, going forward.

  2. Back in college, my English professor hammered home the point by proclaiming “As Mae West always said, ‘quotes always go inside the quotation marks!'”

    That’s been my guideline ever since.

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Patrick is a Christian with more than 28 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.