Susan asks the English Master:
What are the rules for punctuation when using quotation marks? I vaguely recall something about commas, question marks, etc. being placed inside and outside the quotation marks, but don’t remember the rules
The rules differ depending on whether you’re writing for an American audience or for a British/international audience. I’ll discuss the American system, since that is what I know best. Perhaps someone else could weigh in on the British system through a comment.
- Periods and commas: inside the quotation marks
- Colons and semicolons: outside the quotation marks
- Question marks and exclamation points: (a) inside if the question or exclamation is part of the quotation, and (b) outside if the question or exclamation is not part of the quotation
If we look at the actual punctuation symbols, we can detect a visual pattern to the rule:
- . | , inside
- : | ; outside
- ! | ? depends
- When she said, “Aspiration is a prerequisite of inspiration,” she wasn’t kidding. (comma inside quotation mark)
- Toby often said that “patience is a virtue”; however, he was not a virtuous man. (semicolon outside quotation mark)
- Did she really say, “Aspiration is a prerequisite of inspiration”? (question mark outside quotation mark, because the question itself is not contained within the quotation)
- When the days grew short and the snow drifted up to the windowpanes, Sven often wondered, “Why didn’t I move to Hawaii when I had the chance?” (question mark inside the quotation mark)
One exception to the rule for commas and periods is the MLA style for parenthetical documentation. If you’re quoting a source and citing that source in parentheses at the end of the sentence, the period should follow the parentheses. Example: In Free Culture Lawrence Lessig claims, “the Internet should at least force us to rethink the conditions under which the law of copyright automatically applies” (140).
Thank you, Susan, for your question!