where does the comma go with quotation marks?

WHERE DOES THE COMMA GO when it’s within a pair of quo­ta­tion mark? Some­times it’s within the quo­ta­tion marks, some­times it’s out­side those same quote marks! Same with pe­riods! And where do colons and semi-colons go? And en-dashes and em-dashes? And what about quotes within quotes? As the old man in Moon­struck says at the end of the movie, “I’m a-confused.”

Well, in fact, there are two dif­ferent ways of using cer­tain punc­tu­a­tion marks in the Eng­lish lan­guage; both are cor­rect and both pop up all over the In­ternet. When reading var­ious sites, I am gen­er­ally un­cer­tain as to whether or not the writer knows which style he is using and why.

Eng­lish as a lan­guage that can be rec­og­nized as Eng­lish (if with great ef­fort) by a con­tem­po­rary reader ex­tends back to the late 16th cen­tury. Eng­lish is now the third most common na­tive lan­guage in the world (after Man­darin and Spanish), and an of­fi­cial lan­guage of al­most sixty sov­er­eign states.

It is rec­og­nized as a global lingua franca, or common lan­guage, and may be­come the lingua franca of the future!

There are two forms of written English:

•  British Eng­lish (BrE) is used in the United Kingdom and in­cludes all Eng­lish di­alects used in the UK. There are slight re­gional vari­a­tions even in formal, written BrE.

•  Amer­ican Eng­lish (AmE) is used in the United States and in­cludes all Eng­lish di­alects used in the fifty states. Due to the un­prece­dented suc­cess and hege­mony of pop­ular Amer­ican en­ter­tain­ment cul­ture (pri­marily movies and recorded pop/rock music), AmE is be­coming the bridge lan­guage around the world.

 

Amer­ican Eng­lish (AmE) is much closer to being a uni­versal con­stant than British Eng­lish (BrE).

On quotation marks

William Strunk Jr and E.B. White and their heirs keep it real simple in each and every edi­tion of The El­e­ments Of Style:

“Ques­tion marks and ex­cla­ma­tion marks are placed in­side quo­ta­tion marks if they be­long to the quo­ta­tion, out­side if they do not. The same log­ical rule may be em­ployed for commas and pe­riods, and com­monly is out­side the United States, but US pub­lishers con­tinue to ad­here to the older rule that places commas and pe­riods in­side the quo­ta­tion marks al­ways.” (em­phasis added)

For cu­rious readers and novice writers who want more de­tail and some ex­am­ples, here are the “rules” in a shut­nell. And yes, there are many sites on the In­ternet of­fering in­struc­tion by much more au­thor­i­ta­tive voices than mine, but you’re here so read on.

Is it “Hello,” or is it “Hello”, ya know?

Commas with quote marks

In Amer­ican Eng­lish, writers place the punc­tu­a­tion ending a phrase or sen­tence in­side the quo­ta­tion marks:

“I am con­fused as to what you mean when you say that you want me to make it so,” the ship’s doctor told her patient.

(Text within quo­ta­tion marks is usu­ally speech or con­ver­sa­tion in fic­tion, and a quoted state­ment in non-fiction. I simply refer to it as speech from this point on in this article.)

This is the way al­most all Amer­i­cans and all non-Americans who rely on Amer­ican books, jour­nals, man­uals, etc., use these punc­tu­a­tion marks.

But this is not uni­versal: in British Eng­lish writers place the comma or pe­riod out­side the quo­ta­tion marks:

“I am con­fused as to what you mean when you say that you want me to make it so”, the ship’s doctor told her patient.

This ac­tu­ally makes the most sense: the quo­ta­tion marks bracket the first and last words in the speech—where they should be. The comma out­side the ending quo­ta­tion mark sep­a­rates the speech from the person who has spoken.

That is, BrE more clearly de­lin­eates speech from speaker.

Nonethe­less, for those of us who have lived with AmE all or lives, it looks ungainly.

And very, very wrong …

 

In Amer­ican Eng­lish, it’s “Make it so.” In British Eng­lish, it’s “Make it so”.

 

Periods with quote marks

In Amer­ican Eng­lish, writers place the pe­riod ending speech in­side the quo­ta­tion marks:

The ship’s doctor told her pa­tient, “I am con­fused as to what you mean when you say that you want me to make it so.”

In British Eng­lish, writers place the pe­riod ending speech out­side the quo­ta­tion marks:

The ship’s doctor told her pa­tient, “I am con­fused as to what you mean when you say that you want me to make it so”.

 

It’s never “Make it so;” it’s al­ways “Make it so”; so make it so!

 

Colons and semi-colons with quote marks

Amer­ican Eng­lish and British Eng­lish are in ac­cord here, with both colons (:) and semi-colons (;) al­ways placed out­side of the quote marks:

Berni and I are watching the tele­vi­sion se­ries “The Good Wife”; we tend to enjoy shows about lawyers and have sev­eral rea­sons why we think this is one of the best. One of the rea­sons is the cast of “The Good Wife”: Ju­lianna Mar­gulies with Chris­tine Baranski, Josh Charles, Alan Cum­ming, Michael J. Fox, Matthew Goode, Chris Noth, and my fave, Archie Panjabi.

Colons and semi-colons con­fuse many writers, which is a shame as they are both very useful forms of punctuation. 

 

So, is it “How shall I make it so?” or is it “How shall I make it so”?

 

Question marks with quote marks

Ex­actly where to place a ques­tion mark (?) de­pends on the sen­tence: if the ques­tion mark is part of the speech, it stays in­side the quote marks:

“So, just how can I make it so for my captain-waptain?” purred Bev­erly to Jean-Luc.

If the ques­tion mark is not part of the speech, it goes out­side the closing quote marks:

Wesley turned to Deanna and asked her if he had cor­rectly heard his mother call his com­manding of­ficer “captain-waptain”?

 

Is it “Oh!” or is it “Oh”! or don’t you know?

 

Exclamation marks with quote marks

An ex­cla­ma­tion mark or point (!) is used the same as a ques­tion mark: if the mark is part of the speech, it stays in­side the quote marks:

The cap­tain turned to the ship’s doctor and ejac­u­lated, “Just make it so, damn it!”

If the ex­cla­ma­tion mark is not part of the speech, it goes out­side the closing quote marks:

I thought the cap­tain was gonna blow a gasket when he or­dered the ship’s doctor to “make it so”!

A summit on punctuation and quote marks

Sup­pose we had a summit on de­ter­mining an in­ter­na­tional set of rules for all users of written Eng­lish. We would need rep­re­sen­ta­tives from the two groups most af­fected by the cur­rent vari­a­tions: pro­fes­sional writers (versus the rest of us: they need the rules as their liveli­hood de­pends upon it) and ty­pog­ra­phers (al­though with com­puters and the In­ternet and blog­ging many of us are now our own type­set­ters). 1

Whether we like it or not—whether it’s the most log­ical (and there­fore the closest to walking the Stunkian path) or not—the Amer­ican Eng­lish is much closer to being a uni­versal con­stant than British Eng­lish is, and per­haps ever will be. 2

At this time, were you to twist my arm into giving ad­vice on this topic, I would be forced to sug­gest that any writer be­gin­ning to work with the labyrinthine nu­ances of the Eng­lish lan­guage in an in­ter­na­tional forum should opt for BrE for logic and con­sis­tency, and warn them that ArE is prob­ably the way of the fu­ture. 3

 

Comma_photo

HEADER IMAGE: I found this fab­u­lous il­lus­tra­tion gracing an ar­ticle ti­tled “The Won­der­ment of This Tax­onomy.” It was on the Uni­ver­sity of Al­aba­ma’s Studying Re­li­gion in Cul­ture web­site but it didn’t credit the artist. I found the same image on Pin­terest where it claims the artist is Geoff McFetridge. I wanted it for the fea­tured image at the top this page but it’s too small!

 


FOOTNOTES:

1   There is even dif­fer­ences in the use of single quote marks (‘What?’) and double quote marks (“Huh?”) be­tween Amer­ican and British Eng­lish. The Amer­ican way places ini­tial speech in double quote marks and in­te­rior speech in single quote marks:

Last night Berni asked me, “What was it the old man said at the end of the ‘Moon­struck’ movie?”

The British way places ini­tial speech in single quote marks and in­te­rior speech in double quote marks:

Last night Berni asked me, ‘What was it the old man said at the end of the “Moon­struck” movie?’

This seems to be changing, as most of the sites that I visit use the Amer­ican way.

 

 

2   Ooh! Ooh! Spe­cial guests of honor could in­clude Lynne Truss (Eats, Shoots & Leaves), Pa­tricia T. O’­Conner (Woe Is I!), Mary Norris (Be­tween You & Me), and Karen Eliz­a­beth Gordon (The New Well-Tempered Sen­tence).

3   This is re­ally no ad­vice at all, heyna?

 

 

 

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I know that I, prob­ably more than occasionally,malappropriate my punc­tu­a­tion. But, I some­times get in­ten­tional about it.
After all, I’m the guy who spent count­less hours in re­me­dial spelling over spelling and pro­nouncing my last name! I’m to this day thankful to spell-check every time I type words like “re­ceipt”.
“I’ve got blis­ters on my fingers!”

Ei, Ei, Oh…

I re­ally like this little se­ries, es­pe­cially the pietures of Mr. Strunk. He looks ex­actly like I al­ways imag­ined. Some­thing on the order of a gen­tle­manly spy in an Eric Am­bler novel. I think next you should take up the long dash versus the short dash. I re­cently had a pro­fes­sional ed­itor tell me that NOBODY uses long dashes any­more. If true, I think that’s going to make the world an even sadder and more con­fusing place than it is already.

I shall, of course, look for­ward to your thoughts!

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