The Writer’s Toolbox – You Can Quote Me On That, Part I

You’ve found the perfect quote or written a bit of sparkling dialogue. You’ve gotten your citation just right?or your dialogue tag. But have you punctuated it properly?

American versus British

One of the most common punctuation errors arises from confusion over whether to place punctuation marks inside or outside the quotation marks. It’s complicated by the fact that American and British styles handle the issue differently.

As a general rule, American styles?including Chicago, APA, and MLA?prefer commas and periods inside the quotation marks. British styles, which often use a set of single quotation marks (?) instead of the double marks (?), usually place commas and periods outside the quotes.

Where does that leave Canadians? In general, Canadian publications and institutions follow the American style. There are some exceptions, though, so always double check the recommended style when submitting a paper, article, or manuscript. When in doubt?and particularly if You’re already using any of the American style guides for your paper or manuscript?follow the American rule.

Outside versus Inside

Fortunately, the American rule is fairly simple. First, as noted above, commas and periods go inside the quotation marks.

Example A: ?I’m going to the store,? she said.

Example B: You told me that your friend was ?needy? and ?intense,? but I haven’t found her that way at all.

Second, all other punctuation?including exclamation marks, ellipses, and question marks?go outside the quotation marks unless they were part of the original quote.

Example C: What did Shakespeare mean when he wrote, ?All the world’s a stage??

Example D: I want to go right now, not ?possibly tomorrow?!

Example E: The study stated that ?the placebo’s effectiveness was significantly reduced if the subject had conflicted views on Western medicine?; the researchers concluded that attitudes and convictions must be considered in medical studies.

Note that in the following examples, the punctuation is part of the original quotation and therefore is placed inside the quotation marks:

Example F: I shouted, ?Stop!? but he did not listen.

Example G: One famous scene starts out with these lines: ?Double, double, toil and trouble . . .?

Example H: I am confused by the meaning of ?Who is a man that is not angry??

Next week we’ll look at some more complex issues that arise when quotation marks mix with punctuation: multiple sets of quotation marks, double and triple punctuation and punctuation hierarchy, and punctuation of sentences within sentences.

Christina M. Frey is a book editor and a lover of great writing. Chat with her on Twitter about all things literary @turntopage2.

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