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Quotation Marks–Before or After?

I was teaching The Keys to Error-Free Writing in Vancouver, Washington, this week, and one of the hot topics was the placement of periods and commas with quotation marks. When we checked this site in class to see if I had written about the topic (using the search bar on the right), we came up dry.

I have hesitated to cover the topic on this blog. That’s because U.S. writers follow a different style from much of the rest of the world when it comes to periods and commas with quotation marks. If you write in a country that follows different rules, please add a comment to enlighten us.

Here are the rules in the United States:

  • Periods and commas always go inside the closing quotation marks. (There are very rare exceptions to this rule, but I prefer to say always.)
    The poem is titled “Ode to the Semicolon.”
    He responded, “This is the way to punctuate with quotation marks.”
    “I cannot remember that rule,” Linda announced.
    “Planning Your Life,” which is the first chapter, helps the reader set priorities.

graphic showing that the correct placement of punctuation when using quotation marks is within the quote

  • Semicolons and colons always go outside closing quotation marks. This situation doesn’t come up often. But when it does, handle it like this:
    Mark will read “Punctuation Matters”; Rio will cover the other sections.
    This is the last line of Frost’s “The Road Not Taken“: “And that has made all the difference.”

To learn about question marks with closing quotation marks, read my post “? Or ?” — Which Is Correct? If I put quotation marks around the title of the post, it will look like this:

“‘? or ?’ — Which Is Correct?”

And if I asked you a question about it, it would look this way:

Have you read my post “‘? or ?’ — Which Is Correct?”

Notice that we do not double the question mark at the end of the sentence.

Before anyone even thinks about turning the above example into a direct quotation, I am signing off.

Syntax Training


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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

8 comments on “Quotation Marks–Before or After?”

  • As a expat Brit writing in American English, I really struggled with this rule about punctuation and quotation marks until someone told me the reason behind it. Apparently, when type was set manually in blocks into a frame, the smaller punctuation blocks were frequently knocked out of the print setters switched the order to keep them safe inside the quotation marks.
    Even though I prefer the “logical” system followed in British English, this story makes me smile and reminds me how to punctuate correctly for my American clients!

  • A fascinating question.

    What I can say is , to me the period looks wrong with quotations inside, or out.

    Just an opinion of what “looks right!”

    There are copywriters who warn against using periods on conversion grounds.

    “So I would not use this.”

    “And I would not use this”.

    Both look wrong.

    “I would simply use this”

    If forced into using a ! or a ?

    “I would always enclose them with the text!”

  • Hello, Mike. Thanks for weighing in. I do not recommend choosing punctuation based simply on what looks right. What looks right to one person will look wrong to another, particularly in different countries. I rely on accepted style guides.

    I see from your email address that you are in the UK. Which style guides are most often followed there?

  • Lynn this is one of those grey areas in the UK, where three different people really would give three different answers.

    Apart from which, the English are probably the worst to ask questions about English grammar.

    Everyone speaks English better than we do!

    I just asked a few people how they would punctuate the sentence:

    Marie Antoinette said “Let them eat cake”

    And the answers varied all the way from

    Marie Antoinette said: “Let them eat cake.”.
    ( Two periods look well out of place to me, but arguably there is a sentence enclosed in quotes)

    To the zero option

    Marie Antoinette once said “Let them eat cake”

    With every permutation in between!!

    Copywriters warn against using periods, because they interrupt the flow of the mind, so probably I would leave the periods out.

    Here is a puzzler on a similar theme taken from a school English class, when I was young, so many moons ago.

    Smith where Jones had had had had had had had had had had had my approval.

  • Mike, I would not use a survey of people as my style guide!

    Thanks for the puzzler. It has too many “hads” for me, but I welcome your punctuating it for us.

  • I am a business writing coach myself, and one of the things I stress for employees of companies doing business in other English-speaking countries is that they must be familiar with Britsh English rules. Having lived in England myself for several years, I can attest to the fact that it is easy to make grammatical mistakes by British standards if one is using American English.

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