Quotation Marks and Punctuation’s Ultimate Insiders: Periods and Commas
By Kathleen Watson
When you’re on a roll and the inspiration is flowing, you don’t want to stop to ponder punctuation. Seasoned writers get their thoughts and words captured first, postponing punctuation decisions until later.
As you begin to fine-tune your copy, you might get stuck trying to remember what goes inside and what goes outside quotation marks. These tips can help.
In American English, commas and periods always go inside the quotation marks, even when quotation marks enclose a single word.
- She repeated three times, “I was disappointed by his behavior.”
- “Don’t keep reminding me of that fateful night,” she pleaded.
- I refuse to sit through another “debate.”
- The art critic described Susan’s painting as “exquisite,” and I agree.
Exclamation points and question marks can go inside or outside quotation marks, depending on whether they are part of the quoted material.
- “Look out! There’s a car coming!” his father shrieked.
- Don’t you dare expect me to sit through another campaign “debate”!
- “Whey didn’t you wash the windows?” Ava asked Chad.
- Did I hear Chad tell Ava, “I washed the windows, but it rained the next day”?
- Did she call him a “bloviating bag of wind”?
- Who thinks “Do you plan to get married?” is a valid interview question?
(Note the absence of a comma after thinks, because the quoted material serves as an object and is not attributed to anyone.)
Colons and semicolons go outside quotation marks unless they are part of the quoted material.
- She emphasized the highlights of her “extreme adventure”: hiking to the floor of the Grand Canyon, climbing out the same day, and being the oldest member in her group.
- I heard her tell the babysitter, “Remember: She’s allergic to chocolate, so don’t give her M&M’S.”
- He might call it a “debate”; I call it a series of “talking points.”
- Mia made her position clear: “I have a test tomorrow; I can’t go out tonight.”
Bonus Punctuation Tips
Avoid a question mark when a statement is more a directive than a query, or when it represents contemplation. Read the phrase aloud to see whether you would raise your voice at the end. And don’t count on spellcheck in these instances.
- Will everyone without a ticket please contact the box office by Friday noon.
- May I ask you to please return my call before 5 o’clock today.
- I wonder if my manager thinks I deserve a raise.
When you have a quotation within a quotation, use a set of single quotation marks for that element.
She recounted the argument, telling me, “Kelly insisted, ‘That will never work.’”
Don’t forget the interrobang.
When you want to express query combined with either extreme surprise, excitement, or outrage, both the exclamation point and the question mark let you down.
In 1962, journalist-turned-advertiser Martin K. Speckter combined a question mark with an exclamation point to create the interrobang, a mark with emotional punch. Apply the same guidelines for placement when quotation marks are involved that you would with an exclamation point or question mark:
- “What did you expect me to do?!” she screeched.
- Can you believe she replied, “No, I’m not a Cardinals fan”?!
Please remember that these guidelines are for American English. In other parts of the world, usage will differ. You also might have different guidelines if you work with a publisher.
Punctuation marks are critical markers for readers, telling them when to pause, when to stop, when someone is speaking, and the intensity of a character’s mood.
Their placement, unlike the creative aspect of writing, is less inspiration and more memorization — or keeping a good reference book at hand. Wise writers do both.
Kathleen Watson has nearly three decades of experience as an independent business writer, serving clients in both corporate and academic settings. Her weekly blog, Killer Tips from The Ruthless Editor, offers practical word and punctuation tips, as does her recently published book Grammar For People Who Hate Rules: Killer Tips From The Ruthless Editor. Contact her at: Kathy@RuthlessEditor.com.