Books by Melissa Bowersock

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Punctuation and Quotes - Rules of the Game

Punctuation and quotes go together like … love and marriage? Not always. Sometimes it’s more like Frankenstein and … Miley Cyrus.

I know, some people find the rules of punctuation to be vastly overrated and too annoying to bother with. Hey, I’m a rule-breaker, too. I protested at peace rallies during the 1960s; I marched and wore love beads and—well, you know. But strangely, when it comes to writing, I’m a Punctuation Nazi. Why? Because it serves the story.
Those rules are there for a reason; they help you convey the interaction of your story clearly to your readers. There’s nothing worse for a reader than having to stop, go back and work to figure out what the writer is saying. You want your reader to stay blissfully immersed in the story, not grumbling unhappily as s/he reads back over the last sentence to tease out your meaning. So in order to serve your story and keep your readers (and me!) happy, here’s a refresher on punctuation and quotes. However, before I start, let me stress that these are the AMERICAN rules for punctuation. More on that later.

1. Periods and commas always go inside quotation marks, whether you’re using double or single quotes.
This is probably the most common mistake made with quotes. I can’t tell you how many times I have sent e-mails to the TV game show Jeopardy! about this, but they continue to use incorrect punctuation. I boil every time I see a clue that says something like this:
This man was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1940 to 1945 and known as the “British Bulldog”.

Argh! The period always goes inside the quote mark. Here are some examples of the correct way to do it.

The traffic sign changed from "Walk," to "Don't Walk," to "Walk" again almost immediately.
Jeff said, "It’s time; let’s go."
Sheila told Chad, "Jeff said, ‘It’s time; let’s go.'"

2. Use double quotes for dialog, then single quotes for quotes within quotes. Note that the period goes inside all quotation marks.
Chad said, "Henry said, ‘We have plenty of time.'"

3. The placement of question marks with quotes really just follows logic. If a question is within quotes, the question mark should also be within the quotes.
Jeff said, “Would you hurry up?”

In the above case, the question mark goes inside the quotes along with the question being asked.

Chad asked, “Do you agree with the saying, ‘He who hesitates is lost’?”

Here the question is the larger sentence and the question mark goes outside of the saying in single quotes. In addition, only one ending punctuation mark is used with quotation marks, and the stronger punctuation mark takes precedence. Therefore, in the above case, no period after lost is necessary.

4. When you have one question outside quoted material and another one inside quoted material, use only one question mark and place it inside the quotation mark.
Did Sheila say, "Can I stay awhile?"

Even though the main sentence is a question, having a second question mark after the quote is unnecessary.

5. Use quotation marks to set off a direct quotation only.
"When will you be here?" Henry asked.

The above is a direct quote, quoting a speaker verbatim.

Henry asked when you will be there.

This is not a direct quote. It is attributed to another, but not his exact words, so no quotation marks are required.

Now, the caveat I mentioned before is that the UK, Canada and Australia rules can be the exact opposite in rules 1 and 2. Across the pond or across the border, they put the punctuation outside the close quote (as in that Jeopardy! clue that drives me nuts) and they swap quotes on inner dialog--single quotes for the initial dialog, double quotes for the interior dialog. Sometimes. It's not a hard and fast rule. You'll see it both ways.

What's a Punctuation Nazi to do? Consider the source and roll with the punches. As long as the usage is consistent, it should still tell the readers what they need to know. 


  1. I think the period-or-comma-in-quotations rule across the pond is that if the period/comma is part of the quoted material, it's put inside the quotation marks -- but if it's not, it's left outside. I actually internalized this rule as a young'un (and I grew up in Indiana!) and have been yelled at since then for continuing to do it that way. I'm trying to break myself of it, miss, honest. ;) But a 50-year-old habit is tough to break!

  2. Well, I'm certainly learning that there are a lot of variations on what I originally thought was a cut-and-dried rule. I think at this point it's safe to say you do it your way and I'll do it mine, since there seems to be a rationale for every method. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Well done! I love the simple explanations you provide.

    I shared this for you, too.

  4. Thanks Lorraine and Susan for stopping by. Anything to help clear the air--or muddy the water!