There are numerous quirky quotation mark placement + punctuation rules. For the common cases, such as basic dialog, most people know what to do, but we often see people get the less common cases incorrect, so we’ve put together a quick guide to help out!
Note that this post is written according to standard US English usage. The rules are different for other English dialects!
Basic—Punctuation + Quotation Marks in Dialog:
When writing dialog, the punctuation goes inside the quotation marks in the vast majority of cases. (Almost always, but I know if I say “always” someone will find an exception, ‘cause there’s always an exception, because English, why?)
Ex. 1: “Thank you,” she said.
Ex. 2: “Thank you.” She reached out and shook my hand.
Ex. 3: “Thank you!” she said.
Ex. 4: “Thank you?” she said uncertainly.
Ex. 5: “Thank you…” she muttered.
Ex. 6: “Thank y—” A loud pop interrupted her.
Essentially: If the punctuation is part of what’s being said (is demonstrating some aspect of how the dialog has been said) then it goes inside the quotation marks. (The most common exception relates to em dashes—more on that below!)
Intermediate—Punctuation + Quotation Marks in Narrative Text:
In narrative/descriptive text, the placement of punctuation depends on two factors:
a. Which punctuation is in question
b. The nature of the text within the quotation marks.
The basic rules are (this is paraphrased from CMoS 17th Ed.):
Periods: always inside the quotation marks
Ex.: The art of repairing cracked pottery with gold is called “kintsugi.”
Commas: always inside the quotation marks
Ex.: The art of repairing cracked pottery with gold is called “kintsugi,” and the practice originated in Japan.
Semi-colon: always outside the quotation marks
Ex.: The art of repairing cracked pottery with gold is called “kintsugi”; it is also called “kintsukuroi.”
Colon: always outside the quotation marks
Ex.: Other materials can be used for the art of repairing cracked pottery with gold, usually called “kintsugi”: silver and platinum are also sometimes utilized.
Question Marks: depends on what is in quotes. If the quoted material includes the question mark, then it goes inside of the quotes; otherwise, it goes outside the quotation marks.
Ex. 1: Is the art of repairing cracked pottery with gold called “kintsugi”?
Explanation: “kintsugi” isn’t a question, the entire phrase is the question, so the question mark goes outside the quotation marks.
Ex. 2: The article is entitled “Do you have questions about repairing cracked pottery with gold?”
Explanation: the title of the article is itself a question—the question mark is part of the quoted material, and therefore goes inside the quotation marks.
Exclamation Points: work the same way as Question Marks.
Ex. 1: I just learned that the art of repairing cracked pottery with gold is called “kintsugi”!
Ex. 2: The article is entitled “Everything you ever wanted to know about ‘kintsugi’ but hadn’t thought to ask!”
Em Dash: depends on what is in the quotes. If the purpose of the em dash is to denote that the words themselves are being interrupted, the em dash goes inside the quotation marks. If the purpose of the em dash is to mark that a specific action (sans dialog tag!) is interrupting the dialog, then the em dashes go outside. (Sorry this is a little challenging to describe, hopefully the examples help make it clear.)
Ex. 1: “The art of repairing cracked pottery with gold is called—” She broke off when she saw I was holding up a sign that said “kintsugi,” indicating that I already knew.
Explanation: the dialog itself is what is breaking off—in this case because the speaker is being interrupted—so the em dash goes inside the quotation marks.
Ex. 2: “The art of repairing cracked pottery with gold”—she held up a beautiful bowl that appeared to have once been broken, a tracery of gleaming gilding showing where the fault lines once were—“is called ‘kintsugi.’”
Explanation: when an action is interjected into the middle of a line of dialog, the em dashes go on the outside of the quotes.
Ex. 3: “The art of repairing cracked pottery with gold,” she explained as she held up a beautiful bowl, “is called ‘kintsugi.’”
Explanation: this instance has a dialog tag, so commas are used instead of em dashes. The first comma goes within the quotation marks, the second outside.
Advanced—Punctuation + Nested Quotation Marks in Dialog:
Sometimes, a character quotes something they’ve heard. In cases like this, the writer needs to use nested quotation marks (in standard US English, that’s double quotes “” for the first “layer” of dialog and single quotes ‘’ for the second “layer”). The relationship of the punctuation to the nested quote depends on what’s being said. When the dialog is nested, where the punctuation goes follows the same rules as in the “Intermediate—Punctuation + Quotation Marks in Narrative Text” section just above.
Ex. 1: “Did she say ‘Thank you’?” she asked.
Ex. 2: “Did he say ‘Thank you’ to you?” she asked
Ex. 3: “Did he say ‘Thank you,’ or did he say ‘tanks for you’?” she asked
Ex. 4: “How dare he say ‘Thank you’!” she exclaimed.
Ex. 5: “He said ‘Thank you,’” she replied.
Ex. 6: “He said ‘Thank you,’ I think?” she replied.
Ex. 7: “He said ‘Thanks’ and also ‘good luck.’” She nodded as she explained.
Ex. 8: “Actually, he said ‘Thanks!’” she replied.
Ex. 9: “Actually, he asked ‘Should I thank them?’” she replied.
Other Uses of Quotation Marks
Quotation marks can also be used when identifying the titles of works, scare quotes, defining words in foreign languages, etc. Regardless of the uses, the above rules about punctuation placement apply.
So, now you know. 😀
Go forth and Write All The Things!
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