When Punctuation Meets Quotation Marks

 

Confused about whether to put punctuation inside or outside quotation marks? Which of these sentences, for example, is correct:

Sold “as is”, it was cheap. Or Sold “as is,” it was cheap.

The second is correct in American English. Such situations trip writers time and again. Indeed, confusion seems more widespread than ever. I indulge in speculation about that below. First, though, the rules—which are actually pretty easy—followed by plenty of examples.

The basic rules

For both double and single quotation marks:

Commas and periods go inside closing quotation marks, even if they’re not part of the quoted material.

Colons and semicolons go outside closing quotation marks.

Question marks and exclamation points go outside closing quotation marks unless they are part of the quoted material. In the latter case, when that quoted material coincides with the end of a larger sentence that embraces it, the question mark or exclamation point ends both sentences—you don’t need a period too. And don’t use a period or a comma alongside a question mark or an exclamation point; the stronger mark wins.

Commas and periods are so quiet and generic, you needn’t worry that putting them inside a quotation will somehow compromise the quote (unless you are doing very precise scholarly work). Putting them inside may not always seem logical, but it is neater and in some ways simpler. Colons and semicolons, on the other hand, strongly define sentence structure. And question marks and exclamation points have specific meanings that may or may not be part of the quote.

Examples for every occasion

All of the following sentences are punctuated correctly.

The brochure described the architecture as “Las Vegas meets yurt,” which piqued her interest.

He described the architecture as “Las Vegas meets yurt.”

The architecture was “Las Vegas meets yurt”; the decor defied description.

She has memorized what she calls “the seven ’stans”: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan.

Here, the quoted word is loud or emphatic:

“Fire!” he yelled.  

Here, the quoted word is emphatic, and the exclamation point also serves to end the sentence:

He yelled, “Fire!”

On the other hand, the whole sentence might be emphatic. In that case, don’t use the exclamation point inside the quotes; the needs of the overall sentence take precedence:

Do not yell “fire”!

When you yell “fire,” there better be one!

Here, the quoted material is not a question. Rather, the whole sentence is the question:

Who said, “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire”?

Here, the quote inside the single quotes is not a question; the quote inside the double quotes is. The question mark also serves to end the larger sentence:

He asked, “Who said, ‘Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire’?”    

Here, the question mark is part of the quote and also serves to end the sentence:

Juliet said, “O Romeo, Romeo! wherefore art thou Romeo?”

Here, the question mark is part of the quote. Note too that the question mark replaces the usual comma before an attribution (as in, “My favorite Juliet was Olivia Hussey,” the critic said):

“O Romeo, Romeo! wherefore art thou Romeo?” Juliet said.  

Here, the question mark is part of the quote and also serves to end the entire sentence, which happens to be a question as well:

In what act of Shakespeare’s play does Juliet say, “O Romeo, Romeo! wherefore art thou Romeo?”

The question mark is part of the quote; the sentence as a whole is also a question:

Juliet says, “O Romeo, Romeo! wherefore art thou Romeo?” in what act of Shakespeare’s play?

The question mark is part of the quote, which is within a statement that ends with a period:

Juliet says, “O Romeo, Romeo! wherefore art thou Romeo?” in the second act.

Here’s a rare case in which doubling up is okay. The exclamation point is part of the musical’s title, so it stays despite the question mark. The standard styling of the title (italicized in roman text; roman in italicized text) tells us that the exclamation point is part of the title, not sentence punctuation:

“Don’t you just love Oklahoma!?” he asked.

Why all the confusion?

I can suggest two explanations (beyond the general decline in standards of literacy, etc.):

Online anarchy strikes again. I love the Internet, but as I whine about constantly, its otherwise charming anarchy isn’t doing much for the finer points of language. Traditional editorial processes, including copyediting, that help shape and preserve a shared understanding of the written word are often nonexistent. (For that matter, such processes are increasingly neglected in the printed world.) Thus readers experience, absorb, and replicate chaos, not order.

More exposure to British English. The other simultaneously wonderful and problematic thing about the Internet is that it’s international. American English (AmE) and British English (BrE) have different conventions for punctuation and spelling. In BrE, all punctuation that is not part of the quote goes outside the quote marks. A number of English-speaking countries use BrE or a mix of AmE and BrE, among them Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and South Africa. I figure the more reading people do on the Internet, the more likely they are to encounter the Brit way. Readers may see different rules applied to the same situations on an almost daily basis. The result: “Huh?”

Punctuate locally

Unless most of your readers go to the “loo” after having too much tea with their “biscuits,” punctuate your quotes the American way. The American convention is virtually universal in US publishing and printing. There’s an undeniable logic and consistency to the British convention, yet it also demands an extreme precision with quoted material that most writers are going to find burdensome. It also works better typographically with the British convention of using single quotes first, doubles for quotations within quotations (the reverse of the American convention).

I hope this has been helpful!