Imagine you’re at a concert moments before your favorite band takes the stage. The lights dim. The crowd buzzes. The venue feels like it’s ready to burst. Can you feel it? All of the sudden, the singer bursts onto stage and hollers, “Are you READY for some punctuation advice?”
Forgive me, I thought we ought to enjoy a moment of fun before we dig into a dry but frequently confused writing topic—placing punctuation near quoted material.
As a reminder, you should place quotation marks (“ ”) before and after the direct words of speakers, titles of some media, and special words.
But what about other types of punctuation near quoted material—should they appear inside or outside the quotation marks?
Let’s review the rules.
Placing Periods and Commas Near Quotation Marks
Always place periods and commas at the end of quoted material inside the quotation marks.
“Double-check the hotel reservations, Dave,” remarked Mr. Schmidt. “Our flight is going to be late.”
To introduce quoted material, you should generally use a comma before the first quotation mark.
I thought to myself, “Don't forget.”
Placing Semicolons and Colons Near Quotation Marks
Always place semicolons and colons at the end of quoted material outside the quotation marks.
I just read “Social Media and Sustained Reading”; the chapter discusses the impact of social media on our attention spans.
Then again, a colon or semicolon can appear inside the quotation marks if it punctuates the speaker's words.
Our CEO told us, “One thing is certain: We must adapt to survive.”
Placing Exclamation Points and Question Marks Near Quotation Marks
Place an exclamation point or a question mark inside the quotation marks when it is part of the quotation; place it outside when it is not part of the quotation.
I almost laughed when he asked, “That won’t be a problem, will it?”
Did you hear Craig say, “Oh, no, sir”?
(One piece of end punctuation suffices. Don’t place a question mark inside the quotation and a period outside, or vise versa.)
Punctuating Quotations Within Quotations
Use single quotation marks to show a quotation within a quotation.
Maddy said, “Bring your copy of the article ‘The New Retirement: Live Boldly’ to the afternoon workshop.”
The above rules demonstrate conventions of American English. Writers of British English generally follow different conventions. British style recommends using single quotation marks to signal direct quotations and placing end punctuation outside the quotation marks.
All of this is a reminder that the "rules" of English are neither stable nor universal. Secondly, we should all raise a fist of solidarity to the writer who must switch back and forth between these styles.