How to Use Quotation Marks

On the mysteries of combining quotation marks with other punctuation marks.

Mignon Fogarty,
December 26, 2013
Episode #395

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how to use quotation marks: a symbolic illustration

Quotations can bring your writing to life―the reader imagines someone saying the words―but quotations are also vexing to format. Not only do you have to follow different rules depending on what other punctuation marks you mix with your quotation marks, but people in different countries also follow different rules, so you may see quotation marks handled differently in high-quality publications from different countries.

Quotation Marks with Semicolons, Colons, and Dashes

First, let’s review the easy (but rare) stuff: semicolons, colons, and dashes always go outside quotation marks:

Bob snorted and said, “I don’t believe in zombies”―right before thirty of them emerged from the tunnel.

Her favorite song was “Gangnam Style”; she spent weeks trying to learn the dance.

She sang her favorite line from “I Don’t Wanna Stop”: “You’re either in or in the way.”

Quotation Marks with Question Marks and Exclamation Points

Stepping up the ladder of quotation-mark complexity we find question marks and exclamation points: where they go depends on your sentence. If the question mark or exclamation point is part of your quotation, it stays inside; but if the question mark or exclamation point are not part of the quotation, they go outside the closing quotation mark.

In the next examples, the terminal punctuation is part of the quotation, so it stays inside the final quotation mark:

Reynold asked, “Can we have ice cream for dinner?”

Mom snapped and shouted, “No, we cannot have ice cream for dinner!”

On the other hand, in these examples, the terminal punctuation is not part of the quotation―it applies to the whole sentence―so it goes outside the final quotation mark:

Do you actually like “Gangnam Style”?

I can’t believe you lied to me about the ending of “The Sixth Sense”!

Quotation Marks with Commas and Periods

The most common question people ask about quotation marks is whether periods and commas go inside or outside, and the answer depends on where your audience lives because in American English we always put periods and commas inside quotation marks, but in British English periods and commas can go inside or outside (kind of like the American rules for question marks and exclamation points). I use this memory trick: Inside the US, inside the quotation marks. Here are some examples:

“Don’t underestimate me,” she said with a disarmingly friendly smile.

I can never remember how to spell “bureaucracy.”

Don’t get confused when you see this handled differently in The Economist or on the BBC website; just remember that it’s different in those publications because the British do it differently.

Compositors―people who layout printed material with type―made the original rule that placed periods and commas inside quotation marks to protect the small metal pieces of type from breaking off the end of the sentence. The quotation marks protected the commas and periods. In the early 1900s, it appears that the Fowler brothers (who wrote a famous British style guide called The King’s English) began lobbying to make the rules more about logic and less about the mechanics of typesetting. They won the British battle, but Americans didn’t adopt the change. That’s why we have different styles.

But there is one exception.


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