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Using Punctuation with Quotation Marks — Part I

 

Happy New Year! The last quarter of 2008 was extremely busy for me both professionally and personally (my husband and I bought a house!), so it was necessary for me to take a short hiatus from the Grammar Tips & Tidbits newsletter. Thank you for standing by while I was attending to "life stuff"!

So, did the exclamation point at the end of the last paragraph look right to you? Do you have a hard time remembering whether commas, periods, question marks, and exclamation points belong inside or outside quotation marks? If so, you're not alone.  I recently received a question about this from one of my readers, and I think the topic deserves its own newsletter.

Before I go into the details, let me clarify that the following rules apply only to American English. The British have their own guidelines, and the rules in Canada often vary depending on the location.

The guidelines below are based on those included in the tenth edition of The Gregg Reference Manual


Placement of Periods and Commas with Quotation Marks

Fortunately, this is an easy rule to remember. Periods and commas always go inside closing quotation marks, whether single or double.
 

Examples:

Martha said, "I'll pick you up at ten o'clock in the morning."

She claims that Tom is being negative, but he insists that he's simply being "realistic."

The box was marked "Kitchen Appliances," but it was filled with old clothing.

"I'll call you tomorrow night," he said.


Placement of Question Marks and Exclamation Points with Quotation Marks


Question marks and exclamation points are a little trickier, especially when the quoted material falls at the end of a sentence. However, the rules are actually pretty logical. It all depends on whether the punctuation mark applies to the overall sentence or only to the quoted material.

A) If the quoted material is a question but the overall sentence is not, the question mark applies only to the quoted material and is placed inside the closing quotation mark. The same rule applies to exclamations and their respective punctuation marks, exclamation points.

 

Examples:

People are always asking Chris, "Didn't it hurt when you got that tattoo?"

Tara shouted, "I'm not going to school today!"


B) If the overall sentence is a question but the quoted material is not, the question mark applies to the overall sentence and is placed outside the closing quotation mark. The same rule applies to exclamations and exclamation points.
 

Examples:
Who was it that said, "It ain't over till it's over"?
Stop saying, "I'm hungry"!


C)  If the overall sentence and the quoted material are questions, use only one question mark and place it inside the closing quotation mark. The same rule applies to exclamations and exclamation points.
 

Examples:
Do you remember that TV commercial where the woman asks, "Where's the beef?"
I wish he would stop yelling, "I want to go home!"


D) Use the same guidelines when placing question marks or exclamation points in relation to single quotation marks.
 

Examples:
Troy asked, "How would you feel if I asked you, 'Where are you going?' " 

(The question mark applies to both questions, so it's placed inside the single closing quotation mark.)
 
Donnie asked, "Was the package marked 'Fragile'?"

(The question mark applies to the question but not to the word Fragile, so it is placed after the single closing quotation mark.)
 
Why must you keep saying, "That file is marked 'Private' "?

(The question mark applies only to the overall sentence, so it is placed after the double closing quotation mark.)

 

Whenever you encounter one of the situations above, just pause for a moment to think about whether the punctuation mark applies to the overall sentence or to the quoted material (or both). And remember, periods and commas always go inside closing quotation marks!

You may have realized that I didn't include rules for using semicolons, colons, dashes, and parentheses with quotation marks. Stay tuned!  These punctuation marks are addressed in the next issue of Grammar Tips & Tidbits, which you can view here.
 

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Source:

1.  Sabin, William A. The Gregg Reference Manual. 10th ed.
        (New York: McGraw-Hill/Irwin, 2005), 70-71.