Inside or Outside? Punctuation and Quotation Marks
by Trista Cornelius
When I first came up with this topic, I wondered if it was important enough for creative writers. Does anyone care that much about which punctuation marks go inside quotation marks and which ones go outside? Can’t an editor just do a swift fix and we’re done?
Then, by chance, I ended up helping my mom compose an email message and the issue came up three times in one tiny message. I started to see that this punctuation issue matters, but also that the rules are interesting.
First of all, a lot of our current-day spelling and grammar rules illustrate America’s early efforts to distinguish itself from the mother country. If Brits used a “u,” we did not; if they ended words with -re, we reversed it to -er.
Partly for this reason, when it comes to quotation marks and putting punctuation marks inside or outside, contemporary American conventions are mostly opposite of Britain’s.
Early-American typesetters began putting tiny periods and commas inside the chunkier double quotation marks because the heavier printing tile held the vulnerable punctuation marks in place. These little punctuation marks were at risk of falling off the end of sentences or missing the ink and press of paper, leaving un-punctuated sentences or, perhaps, ghost images of pauses and stops.
Now, of course, we have sophisticated fonts and printers and, not only do the period and comma no longer need quotation marks to hold them on the page, we don’t even need two spaces after a period (another story for another column).
So, current-day American rules guiding which punctuation marks go inside quotation marks and which go outside either depend on the meaning of the sentence, early-American typesetting habits, or we’re-not-Brits conventions.
Periods and Commas
This rule is simple: These small punctuation marks always go inside the quotation marks.
Agnes Hawes yawned, turned toward her cat and said, “Good morning, Tubs.”
“Good morning, Tubs,” Agnes said as soon as she woke up from her nap.
If you are quoting material and the quotation ends your sentence, but it is not the end of the quoted material – for example, you’ve cited only part of a sentence – you need to use an ellipses. However, the fourth “dot” is the period and still goes inside the quotation mark.
Philomena’s voice shook with emotion just before she recited the conclusion of the Tennyson poem: “… to strive, to seek, to find … .”
Question Marks and Exclamation Points
Here’s where it gets interesting. Placement of question marks and explanation points depend on whether you, the writer, are quoting someone else’s question or exclamation or if the question or exclamation is the writer’s. For example:
Philomena was confused because Nadine asked, “Why are you so late?” when Philomena arrived yesterday.
This statement quotes Nadine’s question within the sentence so the question mark goes inside the quotation marks.
Agnes asked the new writer, “Why have you chosen our publication for your work?”
This statement quotes a question that ends the sentence. Because the sentence is a statement, not a question, the question mark goes inside the quotation mark.
What do you think the submission guidelines mean when they say “double-space all material except prose”?
Here the writer is asking the question and quoting part of a statement, so the question mark goes outside the quotation marks to confirm that the whole sentence is a question.
The same rules hold true for exclamation points.
He was so angry he shouted, “I can’t believe you did that!”
In this sentence, the exclamation is part of the quoted material so it’s goes inside the quotation mark.
I hate the new rule that says, “Use only one space between sentences”!
Here the exclamation point goes outside the quotation mark because it indicates the writer’s emphasis.
Semicolons and Colons
For the most part, these punctuation marks always go outside the quotation marks, both due to grammar rules as well as how unlikely it is you would need to include them in quoted material. For example:
Agnes’s editor said, “I love your work”; however, he rejected it anyway.
The teacher surprised Philomena and Agnes by saying, “Write what you don’t know”: a strategy that has stayed with them for years.
Single Versus Double Quotation Marks
While we’re talking about quotation marks, there are two types: double and single. Always use double quotation marks when quoting dialogue, others’ writing, or individual words. Use single quotation marks only when you are quoting material within a quotation. For example:
Enid explained with a wicked smile on her face, “After the snake incident, Paul said, ‘No way!’ when I ask him to help me weed the strawberry patch.”
The single quotation marks show that Enid is quoting Paul. The exclamation point goes inside the single quotation mark because it’s Paul’s exclamation. The period goes inside the quotation marks at the end because that’s the American rule.
This is the thirteenth in a series of practical grammar tips every writer needs to know by Trista Cornelius, English Instructor, Clackamas Community College. She’s both the best and worst person to share these tips with you. Best because she’s made all the mistakes herself and learned the hard way. Worst? Same reason!