Punctuation and Quotations

PunctuationPunctuation? Quotations? Inside? Outside? I had a friend message me recently, almost in a panic, after he saw a question mark outside quotation marks. Is that wrong? Is it right? Well what about periods, commas, colons, etc.? Today we’ll discuss the basic rules of punctuation in relation to quotation marks, and hopefully we can clear up some of those nagging questions.

The basics

Quotation marks are used to indicate someone else’s words. That person can be speaking or it can be a piece of writing that you’re referencing. A quotation mark looks like this: “. Unlike an apostrophe (‘), quotations always come in pairs and go around the other persons words. For example, my husband said, “Merlin is not a cat.” See how the quotations opened the thing he said and ended it? Exactly. Also, make sure you note, when you quote someone in the middle of your sentence, you will capitalize the quote if it’s a complete sentence. If it’s not a complete sentence, you don’t capitalize it. Let’s compare these two ideas:

My husband said, “The magician Merlin is not a cat.”
My husband claimed that Merlin, the magician in King Arthur, was “not a cat.”

Notice that the first quote is capitalized, and the second is not. The first is a complete sentence, and the second is not. Get it? Rock on.

Commas and Periods

Commas and periods go inside quotation marks. Pretty much always. The only exception to this rule is when you are making a parenthetical statement (or citation) after the quote. For example:

Shakespeare coined the infamous quote, “If music be the food of love, play on.”
Shakespeare coined the infamous quote, “If music be the food of love, play on” (Shakespeare, 17).

Semi-colons and colons

This rule is simple enough. Semi-colons and colons always go outside of quotation marks. If I were to use a colon in a title, for example, I would say:

“The Triple-Turned Whore”: Bipolarity and Manic Depression in Shakespeare’s Cleopatra

Indeed, that is a title I used. The quote came directly from Antony and Cleopatra.

Question marks

So question marks can be a little trickier. It depends on whether the quote includes a question or not. If the quote includes a question, the question mark goes inside the quote. If it isn’t, it goes outside. Let’s take a look:

He asked, “Are you all right?”
Did he ask “Are you all right”?

Notice in the second example, the whole sentence is a question–not just the quotation.

Final thoughts

I hope this clears things up for you, I know it helped me! It’s a bit to remember, but I’m sure you’ll get the hang of it. Good luck!

Posted in Grammar Quick Fix.


  1. I hate that American grammar dictates that the period must be inside the quotation mark in this example: My husband claimed that Merlin, the magician in King Arthur, was “not a cat.”

    It seems natural to me that the period should come after the last quotation mark, but that’s apparently the British way of doing things. Phooey.

  2. I’ve long rebelled at the notion of arbitrarily putting the period inside of the quotation marks. If the quotation itself isn’t a sentence in its own right, the period belongs to the sentence its used in, not the quote.

    • While I completely understand what both of you are experiencing, I unfortunately don’t make the rules–I just follow them.

      At the end of the day, we can either be rebels and try to make something standardized or do it “correctly” to meet the esteem of our professors, supervisors, etc. I know for me, at least for the time being, I’m opting for the latter. 😛

  3. Oh, I certainly understand the “rule”, I just disagree with it. I feel no compunction to comply with rules that I find illogical.

    Yes, I’m fighting social inertia and maybe losing some grading points on term papers, but it’s worth it to me. Dumb “rules” are not worth propagating. English is a living language, and it’s actually acceptable and even common to challenge assumptions and change “how things work”.

  4. May I meander from the topic here? I am really curious about the usage of this word “compunction”. I thought you should say ” I feel no compunction NOT to comply with rules that I find illogical” instead. But it seems that people delete the negative “NOT” freely in many contexts.. Is it quite common? I am not a native speaker by the way.

    eg. http://www.economist.com/node/14413298

    “… and no compunction to explain or confer.”

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