In the first two articles of this series (see Part I http://www.voicemagazine.org/articles/columndisplay.php?ART=9337 and Part II http://voicemagazine.org/articles/columndisplay.php?ART=9357), we examined the proper use of punctuation and quotation marks, including whether to place commas and quotes inside quotation marks and how to handle multiple sets of quotation marks. But although the steps and rules discussed cover most situations, they only deal with sentences in which one punctuation mark is juxtaposed with a set of quotation marks. To conclude the series, this week we’ll examine situations where two or more punctuation marks are dueling for space next to a set of quotation marks?or worse, two sets.
Triple punctuation (or more!) can give rise to some very bizarre possibilities. However, It’s not as confusing as it might look. In order to keep things consistent, the English language has developed a punctuation hierarchy that dictates which punctuation mark gets used, what gets dropped, and whether two or more punctuation marks can coexist with a set of quotation marks. And It’s easy to follow. Treat each nested quotation as its own entity, then apply the following guidelines. Soon you’ll navigate quotation punctuation with ease!
First, drop periods in favor of exclamation points or question marks. This means that when you have a period and an exclamation point or question mark combined with a set of quotation marks, the period is dropped. This is the case whenever quotation marks are used, whether It’s a quotation or citation.
Example A: I said, ?He likes the song that begins with the lines ?How do you solve a problem like Maria??? Note that first I dealt with the nested quotations on their own; then I applied the multiple punctuation rule. Here, normally the main sentence would end with a period, but because the lines quoted already end with a question mark, that question mark takes precedence and the period is dropped.
Note, however, that there’s an exception: when the period is part of an abbreviation, It’s retained.
Example B: ?Did he really tell you that you’d ?better be at the office by 6:00 a.m.???
Second, never put two question marks or two exclamation points side by side.
Example C: ?Do you like the song that begins with the lines ?How do you solve a problem like Maria??? Although the first question mark is part of the quoted lyrics, the second question mark?which is related to the sentence as a whole?is considered superfluous and therefore has been dropped.
Third, when required by the needs of the sentence, the question mark and exclamation point can exist together with a set of quotation marks. This is uncommon in academic settings, as it is found primarily in the so-called exclamatory question. According to the Chicago Manual of Style, you should include both the question and the exclamation marks ?only if they are different and the sentence punctuation seems essential.?
Example D: I hate the song that begins with the lines ?How do you solve a problem like Maria??! Here, both the question mark (part of the quotation) and the exclamation point (part of the sentence itself) are important and are kept.
Example E: Sarah shouted, ?I hate the song that begins with the lines ?How do you solve a problem like Maria??!? This example involves nested quotes, but the rules are applied in the same manner. Note that the possible final period has been dropped.
Quotations are an integral part of writing, both formal and informal, academic and otherwise. Learning to use them correctly and confidently will help your writing look cleaner and more professional. More importantly, it will ensure that your work will read more clearly?and after all, clear communication is what good writing is all about.
Christina M. Frey is a book editor and a lover of great writing. Chat with her on Twitter about all things literary @turntopage2.