Quotation Marks and Punctuation

By Maeve Maddox

Several readers have asked about punctuation at the end of a sentence that contains quotation marks.

The first question asks me to choose which of the following is correctly punctuated:

“I’m awesome. You should probably follow me!”.  
“I’m awesome. You should probably follow me”.

My answer: Neither.

The exclamation mark at the end of the first statement is sufficient end punctuation. No period is needed outside the quotation marks: “I’m awesome. You should probably follow me!” 

The period at the end of the second example belongs inside the quotation marks: “I’m awesome. You should probably follow me.”

The second question asks if this sentence is correctly punctuated:

“Do you think she has the nerve to tell him, ‘You are a terrible man.’?”

Like people, punctuation marks jostle about in a certain pecking order. A question mark muscles out a period: “Do you think she has the nerve to tell him, ‘You are a terrible man’?”

The third question asks if two question marks are needed when a quotation is couched within a question. For example: The professor asked the class, “Did you enjoy the play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”?

Answer: No. One question mark is sufficient: The professor asked the class, “Did you enjoy the play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”

Question marks and exclamation marks drive out periods and commas. Compare:

He said, “I hate you.” (period at the end of the sentence I hate you.)
Can you believe he said, “I hate you”? (period eclipsed by question mark)

“George Clooney is gorgeous,” she said. (comma after statement and before attribution)
“Do you think George Clooney is gorgeous?” she asked. (question mark eclipses comma)

There is, however, a situation in which a comma is called for after a question mark, even though the resulting visual effect is ugly. You would use both the question mark and a comma if you were listing several plays by Edward Albee: The Zoo Story, The Death of Bessie Smith, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Tiny Alice, and Seascape.

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14 Responses to “Quotation Marks and Punctuation”

  • Adam Blumer

    Thank you for this post. I concur on your answers here. What continually frustrates me, however, are uses of quotation marks you don’t find in most manuals on English/writing. For example:

    Her answer was, “Don’t look at me that way.”

    OR

    She came back with, “Don’t look at me that way.”

    Commas or no commas? Few instructional manuals deal with quotations that appear in nonstandard ways. Thoughts?

  • Leslie Fox

    Can you please do a post addressing SINGLE quotation marks – where and when to use them and where the punctuation (such as comma and period) goes?

  • Alice Kemp

    I do enjoy receiving your Daily Writing Tips. However, I have a question about this one. In the very last sentence, you place a comma after Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? What if you placed that play last in the series. Would you then need a period after the question mark? My initial thought would be no, that the question mark is sufficient.

  • Nelida K.

    I remain doubtful about the placing of the comma in this sample sentence:

    “George Clooney is gorgeous,” she said. (comma after statement and before attribution)

    If – and as per your correct recommendation between brackets – the statement is: “George Clooney is gorgeous”, shouldn’t the comma come after the closing quotation mark? [i.e., “after” statement and “before” attribution].

    I would have written “George Clooney is gorgeous”, she said. Otherwise, the comma would belong “in” and “to” the statement, and not “before” the attribution.

  • MJ

    Two of your examples seem to conflict – and this is always where I get hung up:

    The professor asked the class, “Did you enjoy the play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”

    and

    Can you believe he said, “I hate you”?

    Doesn’t the punctuation always belong within the quotation marks?

  • Maeve Maddox

    Adam,
    Seems to me that your examples would work the same way an ordinary “he said/she said” attribution would–with commas.

  • Dale A. Wood

    You do need one more set of nested parentheses in this sample sentence:
    The professor asked the class, “Did you enjoy the play ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’”

    On the other hand, you could go for this simple alternative:
    The professor asked the class, “Did you enjoy the play WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?”

    I used to correspond with Isaac Asimov just a little bit. He read all of his incoming mail, and he was generous in sending back typed postcards to people who wrote him. He always used the second form above.

    Did you know that Asimov was the author of FOUNDATION AND EMPIRE, published in about 1951?
    George Lucas used a lot of ideas from this novel in his story and screenplay for THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, published in May 1980.
    (I remember the date of that one well because it was my sister’s birthday: May 21st.)
    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    There is a problem with the Internet concerning e-mail systems, etc.
    There is a way of things like italic type disappearing.
    Hence, it is a good idea to indicate the titles of book, movies, plays, etc., in some other way. For example:
    “The Spy Who Loved Me” or THE SPY WHO LOVED ME.
    These forms don’t usually get messed up in Internet processing.
    D.A.W.

  • Maeve Maddox

    Alice,
    As long as the order isn’t significant, placing the Virginia Wolfe title at the end would avoid the comma after the question mark and the question mark would end the sentence.

    Dale,
    You’re right, the italicized title gets lost in the italicized example. Quotation marks would be incorrect because the title is a long work. Underlining won’t work on a web page because that’s the mark of a link. Typing the title all in caps is an option. I see it a lot, but it seems like shouting to me. I wouldn’t have to put my example sentences in italics, but I like to. I believe I’ve found a solution. I can follow the Chicago style recommendation for typing in programs that don’t allow italics: Type an underscore mark _like this_ before and after text that otherwise would be italicized.

  • Curtis

    Maeve,

    I think you’re missing some terminal punctuation in these two examples:

    >> “George Clooney is gorgeous,” she said. (comma after statement and before attribution)
    >> “Do you think George Clooney is gorgeous?” she asked. (question mark eclipses comma) <<

    Dale,

    Movie titles and book titles should be italicized, not capitalized.

  • Bruce Ramsay

    All good points . . . and good comments.

  • Maeve Maddox

    MJ,
    It doesn’t make sense to me either, but that’s the way it is according to U.S. punctuation convention. Question marks, unlike periods and commas (which always go inside), go inside or outside closing quotation marks according to whether the quoted words form a question or not.

    I’ll make a confession: I’d rather write about absolutely any other language topic. Whenever I must address questions of punctuation, I glue myself to the Chicago Manual of Style and pray that I get it right in the post.

  • Umesh

    Hi, Maeve,

    Please correct me if I’m wrong, but I feel the question mark should have been OUTSIDE the quotation marks in:

    “Do you think she has the nerve to tell him, ‘You are a terrible man’?”

    This is because the entire quotation itself is a question. If, however, only the quoted material were a question, then placing the question mark INSIDE the quotation marks would be correct, as has been done in:

    The professor asked the class, “Did you enjoy the play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”

    Thanks, as always, for this wonderful site.

  • Umesh

    Hi, Nelida K,

    In American English, periods and commas always go INSIDE the quotation marks–that’s the reason the comma has been placed inside the quotation marks in: “George Clooney is gorgeous,” she said.

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