Punctuation – Inside or Outside Quotation Marks

There is general confusion on the use of punctuation with quotation marks. Should the punctuation be inside or outside quotation marks? The confusion is understandable since it is seen written both ways – inside and outside. So, which is correct? The answer is – both. Here’s why -

According to the American style, the commas and periods (or full stops) always go inside the quotation marks. For example:

“Sam,” he said, “your dinner’s on the table.”

I like Shakespeare’s line “to be or not to be.”

So, the American rule is – always place the comma and the period inside the quotation marks.

In the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth countries where there is British influence, it’s different. Here instead of following a rule, logic is used. In other words, the placement of the comma or period depends on whether it belongs to the quotation or to the sentence that contains the quotation. For instance in the examples above, the first example remains as it is –

“Sam,” he said, “your dinner’s on the table.”

This is because the comma after the Sam and the period after the table belong to the quote.

The second example, however, changes to

I like Shakespeare’s line “to be or not to be”.

The reason for the change here is that the period belongs to the complete sentence and not the quoted material.

So, the British rule is – place the comma and period inside the quotation marks if they are part of the quoted material, otherwise place them outside.

But the rules for the question mark, exclamation mark, colon and semicolon are the same in both the American and British systems.

The question and exclamation marks follow the rule of logic – they are placed inside the quotation marks if they are part of the quoted material , otherwise outside. For example:

She asked, “Am I late?”

He screamed, “Help!”

But –

Did you hear him say “I don’t want to go”?

I can’t believe he said “I am scared”!

The colon and semicolon are always placed outside the quotation marks. For example:

I found three things in the new magazine “The World Today”: quality, information, and attractiveness.

The guard said “Stop”; I stopped.

Do you know of any other rules pertaining to punctuation and quotation marks?

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16 Responses

  1. I think you’ve covered all the punctuation marks really well. You’ve also shown one advantage of the U.S. preference for putting the comma and period inside the quotation marks: There’s no need for interpretation, judgment, or thought. It’s just a simple rule. I only wish more writers and editors in the U.S. knew it and applied it consistently. — Laura (at http://terriblywrite.wordpress.com)

    • Thank you, Laura, for your encouraging words. You’re right, the American rule is straight and simple – just one way and that’s it. But if you look at it closely, the British way also makes sense. It’s logical – that’s why they call it the ‘logical method’.

  2. I didn’t know that there were different rules about this. To me it just seems obvious that something quoted should be quoted without any further intepretation. Adding punctuation within the quotation marks that was not originally there is changing the the quote. Hence a falsification of the original. And it doesn’t matter what may get added. It does not belong there.

    • That only works if the quote is of written / printed etc material. For a quotation of spoken words, the punctuation is added to the original by the person doing the recording, hopefully to clarify. Where to add it is not so straightforward.

  3. […] punctuation inside, regardless of the sentence structure or what you were quoting. I was wrong and this blog gave me a crash course on the different […]

  4. […] other side of the world, you can learn how the United Kingdom approaches this same rule via the The Write Corner. It’s different and the […]

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