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
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!
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?