When learning a new language, there are so many things to keep in mind. You have to make sure you’re using the right words. You have to make sure you’re putting them in the right order. You have to make sure that your verbs are being conjugated correctly. And you have to make sure that you are putting your punctuation in the right places and using them under the right circumstances. Even the most fluent of English speakers can still struggle with proper punctuation.
First, as with so many other things to do with the English language, there are some differences between British and American standards for whether you place punctuation marks inside or outside of quotation marks. For the purposes of this post, I’ll be focusing mostly on the American standard, but you will want to keep that distinction in mind.
Periods and Commas Go Inside
Some people are led to believe that if the period or comma was not a part of the original quoted text that these punctuation marks should not be inside of the quotation marks. By American standards, this would be incorrect.
- Incorrect: Bill described the movie as “incredibly funny”.
- Correct: Bill described the movie as “incredibly funny.”
When you have a sentence that contains more than one set of quotation marks with some unquoted text in the middle, the same rules apply, except the comma following the unquoted text would be outside of the quotation marks.
- Incorrect: “The shoebox”, exclaimed Jerry, “is next to the door”.
- Correct: “The shoebox,” exclaimed Jerry, “is next to the door.”
Colons and Semicolons Go Outside
Unless the colon or semicolon appears in the middle of the original quoted text, these punctuation marks should be on the outside of the quotation marks.
- Incorrect: I still have three major destinations on my “international travel bucket list:” Egypt, Easter Island and England.
- Correct: I still have three major destinations on my “international travel bucket list”: Egypt, Easter Island and England.
Exclamation and Question Marks Depend on Context
When you consider question marks and exclamation marks, you have to think about whether those marks fit logically inside or outside of the quotation marks.
- Incorrect: Do you know why Jill told Ted, “I’m having an affair?”
- Correct: Do you know why Jill told Ted, “I’m having an affair”?
In this context, “I’m having an affair” is not a question. However, the sentence as a whole is a question and thus the question mark goes on the outside. Contrast that with this example.
- Incorrect: Jeremy asked, “What are you having for lunch”?
- Correct: Jeremy asked, “What are you having for lunch?”
Here, “What are you having for lunch?” is a question, but the sentence as a whole is really a statement. Under British conventions, it may be acceptable to add a period after the final quotation mark, but it’s rather unattractive and really unnecessary. To this end, we generally avoid using double “end marks” with our sentences, both under the British and American conventions.
- Weird, but not wrong: When did Joan ask, “Why are you here?”?
- Preferred: When did Joan ask, “Why are you here?”
With this example, “Why are you here?” is a question, so it needs a question mark inside of the quotation marks. At the same time, the sentence as a whole is also a question. Logic would dictate that two question marks are needed, as shown in the first sentence, but this is rather cumbersome and awkward. So, it is perfectly acceptable (and preferred) to drop the second question mark.
Use Colons for Longer Quotes
From what I understand, the official rule is that you should really only be using quotation marks for quotes that are about three lines or shorter. For anything longer than that, you can offset the quoted text by using a colon and then starting the quoted material as a separate, indented paragraph. Quotation marks, then, are not required or used. This is really fodder for another blog post, but it is a point worth bringing up.
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