Friday, April 2, 2010

Where Do You Put Punctuation, Inside or Outside Quotation Marks?

I try to know and use the rules of language as consistently as the firing of my neural synapse patterns will allow during the prime wakeful hours of any day, but I am easily led astray.

In my years of professional listening I knew that unless I internally corrected some of what I heard, I might absorb it unconsciously.

“But me and her had been planning to get married,” said a man, explaining that his intended had left town with a man she met had at a pizza parlor. (This is a fictitious example. All actual men I have known either had different problems or their losses involved no pizza parlor Romeos.)

Grammar is clearly not an appropriate focus for such an hour of difficulty, but I try to set apart no more than the mental wattage requirements of a small night-light to translate in my own mind the “hims” and “hers” into the proper personal pronouns. If I don’t, what guarantee do I have that I won’t soon forget their proper use myself?

I find I have the same problem with reading unedited material. How many creatively punctuated essays or short stories can I read without becoming uncertain as to the standard use of those helpful little marks?

Reading otherwise engaging self-published material on the Internet does expose us to many problems of English grammar and usage. I once encountered an announcement that looked something like this:

"Don’t Worry, Be Happy",  is the title of my new …

That lost and lonely comma lit a flame and inspired a question in me.

THE QUESTION: In American usage, where does punctuation go, inside quotation marks or outside of them?

THE ANSWER: I knew the answer would not be completely straightforward, didn’t you? The answer is, it depends.

INSIDE: Generally speaking, periods and commas go inside the quotation marks.

“I worry I will never be happy,” the jilted man said.

I have a great recipe I’ll share with you called “Mash-Mush.”

OUTSIDE: Semicolons and colons generally go outside quotation marks.

Her favorite writing manual is “The Elements of Style”; she refers to it often.

There are two reasons she hated being called “Sweet Pea”: it is diminutive and it is cloying.

INSIDE or OUTSIDE: The question mark is of course willing to bring up extra questions. In most cases, a question mark should be inside the quotation marks.

“What do you worry about?” he asked.
However, if the question mark is not part of the actual quotation then it must go outside the quotation marks.

Have you read “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”?

No, but I did read “What Me Worry?”

This general rule also holds for exclamation points. If the exclamation mark is part of the quote, include it within the quotation marks. As it has been suggested that any author probably needs to use no more than one or two exclamation marks per lifetime, if the exclamation point is not part of a direct quote you could always solve your doubt or indecision by omitting the exclamation point altogether and then you can follow the more straightforward rule for periods and drop that little baby right inside the quotations marks.

In addition to Strunk and White's classic The Elements of Style, one easy reference for questions such as this is Patricia T. O'Conner's book, Woe Is I  The Grammarphobe's Guide to Better English in Plain English. I hope my review will help me keep these particulars straight. And if perchance it has helped you that will help me too, because chances are that I have been reading something you have written and as I said earlier, I am easily led astray.


Carol............. said...

Yes, the art of writing can sometimes be very confusing! LOL

Donna B said...

I love to write, unfortunately I did not apply myself in English class. I doodled instead. I have kept journals since the age of 18. Forty five years of "learning on the fly". When in doubt, look in a book. Often I would get confused with the proper placement of the quotation marks. So thank you so much for clearning that up.... Now, if I can just remember it.