Punctuation Mistakes #2: Quotation Marks and End Stops
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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