Punctuation Mistakes #2: Quotation Marks and End Stops

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Readers frequently ask whether to place commas, periods, question marks, and exclamation points inside or outside closing quotation marks.

Note: This post illustrates American usage.

Periods and Commas

The period and comma are always placed within closing quotations:

Patrick Henry said, “Give me liberty or give me death.”

“If you are going through hell,” said Sir Winston, “keep going.”

In Act II, scene 2 of Julius Caesar, Caesar tells Calpurnia that “cowards die many times.”

Introduce a quotation with says or said only if the words were spoken. Alternatives to says include: states, writes, notes, comments, observes, concludes, reports, maintains, and adds.

If the quotation is introduced with a verb like says, follow the verb with a comma. If the word is introduced by the word that, do not put a comma after that.

The demands of technical writing often require that the period be placed outside quotation marks. The Chicago Manual of Style gives this example of how to deal with printed instructions when a period within quotation marks could be misinterpreted:

Click on Save As; name your file “appendix A, v. 10”.

Question Marks and Exclamation Points

When the quoted material is a question or an exclamation, the appropriate marks go inside the quotation marks:

He shouted, “Run, the zombies are coming!”

She asked, “Where’s the best place to hide?”

If the framing sentence is a question or an exclamation, the end marks go outside the closing quotation mark:

I just love the way he says, “fit to be tied”!

Did you hear the inspector say, “Label all dangerous chemicals”?

Although proponents of one convention or another claim that “logic” is on their side, punctuation is an arbitrary notational system. It was invented to clarify written expression. Conventions vary from country to country and from generation to generation. It’s possible that American punctuation conventions may change at some time in the future.

For the present, however, if you are writing nontechnical content for an American publisher, put the periods and commas inside the closing quotation marks.

Put question marks and exclamation points inside the quotation marks if they belong to the quotation; put them outside if they belong to the framing statement.

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9 thoughts on “Punctuation Mistakes #2: Quotation Marks and End Stops”

  1. Well done Maeve. For me, every example above is the best (and logical) way to deal with punctuation and quotation marks.

  2. Exclamation point, or exclamation mark? We don’t have a question point, so I think exclamation mark makes more sense. But is there a standard name for the symbol used to denote emphasis, alarm, surprise, etc.?

  3. If the quotation forms a complete sentence as quoted, then the first letter should be capitalized. Therefore: “If you are going through hell,” said Sir Winston, “Keep going.”

  4. Exclamation point/question mark. septEMBER, novEMBER, octOBER, by accident/on purpose, these things often don’t make sense the strictest manner.

  5. Absolutes, such as always and never, are risky, especially with regards to the malleability over time and culture of grammar and language usage. Just as in your technical writing example, another important exception to rule number 1 should be noted for MLA users. In an in-text parenthetical citation, the end mark is not placed inside the quotation marks, but rather held to follow the citation of author and/or page #: “quoted words” (author 1).
    Variation to this rule: When the end mark of the quoted material is a question mark or exclamation point (mark, excitement mark, bang, et al), the question mark goes inside the quotation marks, but the final end mark outside the citation “quoted question?” (author 1).

  6. Elizabeth,
    The quotation I started with is this: “If you’re going through hell, keep going.” I broke it up to illustrate the use of commas to punctuate a “said” attribution that occurs in the middle of quoted material.

    I don’t try to include every possible rule or exception in the daily posts. That would make them too long. In this review, my purpose was to revisit a topic that is covered in more detail in previous DWT posts. Teaching experience has shown me that students learn more easily when material is presented incrementally: first the general rules and conventions; then the exceptions.

  7. Venqax was trying to say that there are idiomatic expressions in English, such as exclamation point and question mark – and it is useless to argue about them.
    English is not a computer language like Pascal or Fortran.

  8. Many times, quotation marks are used as a substitute for italics – especially when different fonts are not available. In these cases, the punctuations are put outside of the quotation marks because those marks are not italicized.
    Rather than coming to a “modus vivendi”, the Saracens decided to attack “en masse”, against those “heretical dogs”.

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