The 411 on Punctuation and Quotation Marks

by Debbie Brown

It’s easy to get confused about the use of punctuation with quotation marks. Where does that punctuation go? Inside, outside…both? Here are a few rules for the punctuation/quotation mark combo that will help as you write your papers this quarter.

One note for ELL learners—if you look at these rules and think they are totally backwards, that could be because you learned English in Europe (or almost anywhere outside the United States). English that is taught abroad is almost always British English, not American English, and indeed, the rules are often the exact opposite of each other. As an ELL student, this is yet another hurdle to jump over as you do the amazing work of studying at university in a foreign language.

However, even native English speakers can get mixed up on the rules. Since a review of the rules (and the exceptions) never hurts, here we go!

1. Commas and periods are always placed inside the quotation marks.

“I will in a minute,” she replied, “as soon as I finish this chapter.”

1a. The exception is when the item enclosed in quotation marks is just a letter or a number, in which case the period or comma will go outside the closing quotation marks:

The buried treasure was marked on the map with a large “X”.

The only grade that will satisfy her is an “A”.

On this scale, the highest ranking is a “1”, not a “10”.

1b. Of course, if another set of words or a parenthetical citation gets between the quoted material and the end of a sentence, then the comma or period will follow the intervening elements.

The question is whether the persona is expressing a wish in those identical final lines, “And miles to go before I sleep, / And miles to go before I sleep” (15-16).

2. Colons and semi-colons are always placed outside the quotation marks.

Williams described the experiment as “a definitive step forward”; other scientists disagreed.

Benedetto emphasizes three elements of what she calls her “Olympic journey”: family support, personal commitment, and great coaching.

3. Question marks and exclamation points go inside the quotation marks if the punctuation applies to the quotation itself.

Phillip asked, “Do you need this book?”

Jessica exclaimed, “I love the Writing Center!”

The question mark/exclamation point are part of the quoted material, so they are inside the quotation marks.

3a. However, question marks and exclamation points go outside the closing quotation marks if the punctuation applies to the whole sentence.

Does Dr. Lim always say to her students, “You must work harder”?

Since the question mark applies to the outer sentence, it is placed outside the quotation marks.

3b. More question mark/exclamation point examples:

Have you read the assigned short story, “Stop Judas!”?

No, but I did finally get around to reading last week’s assignment, “Where Are They Now?”

3c. Now this is where things get really tricky. What if you have the dreaded question mark/quotation mark/parenthetical citation combo? If a quotation ends with a question mark or an exclamation point, include the given punctuation followed by a closing quotation, then insert your parenthetical citation, and insert a period after your parenthetical citation. For example:

The mixture of pride and shame that the South feels about its history is a prevalent theme in “Absalom, Absalom!” (Faulkner).

Using a combination of punctuation and quotation marks can be confusing at first, but refer to these examples whenever you need to. And remember, you can always ask a friendly neighborhood writing tutor for help.

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