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
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
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
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
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.