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Punctuation and Quoted Material

Stymied by pesky punctuation marks and their position in quoted speech or phrases? Does the comma go before the quotes, or after? Does a period go inside quotation marks? And what about question marks—which seem to break all the rules? If you’re writing books, stories, or poems, you need to know the proper way to format dialogue—including punctuation. The rules differ depending on what part of the world you hail from, but if you’re writing for an American audience, here’s the skinny.

Commas and periods go inside quotation marks. Examples:

She said, “Put the groceries over there.”

It’s no wonder that we still rely on romantic “instinct.”

Except when a parenthetical reference follows the quotation. Examples:

Fritzheimer refers to this option as “a quick fix with little regard for the individual’s needs” (321).

Colons and semicolons go outside quotation marks:

The first group’s questionnaires came back with a majority of “not sure” or “not at this time”; however, the second group responded more in the affirmative.

Be sure to pack enough road trip “survival gear”: magazines, munchies, and gum.

Question marks and exclamation points go outside the quotation if they apply to the whole sentence, inside if they apply to the quotation itself:

George asked, “Why is he yelling at the coach?”

Why do they insist on saying, “All’s well that ends well”?

Susan yelled, “She’s driving on the wrong side of the road!”

I cannot believe she is singing “The Star-Spangled Banner”!

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A comma is not needed if the quoted material flows smoothly within the sentence, without break or pause:

The phrase “live and let live” always comes to mind when the neighbors pay a visit.

British Versus American Style

In the UK and British-influenced countries, commas and periods are placed either inside or outside the closing quotation marks based on whether or not they belong to the quoted material (much the same way as American placement of question marks and exclamation points is determined).

So why do Americans use different punctuation than the British when it comes to question marks and periods? Surprisingly, it was more a matter of typography than grammar or style. According to alt.english.usage, back in the 1700s American printers, when setting type by hand, found that periods or commas outside of quotation marks were prone to get knocked out of position or were damaged because they were smaller and more delicate. If they were inside the quotation mark, they were better protected, and thus we began to move away from British convention.

Some American language experts are outspoken advocates of returning to the British style, citing the confusion that can result from our system. But The Chicago Manual of Style says, “In defense of nearly a century and a half of the American style, it may be said that it seems to have been working fairly well and has not resulted in serious miscommunication.”

Can’t keep grammar and usage issues straight? Need help with punctuation, quoted material, and British or American style choices? The Writer’s Relief proofreaders are here to help!

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