How to Use Punctuation for Quotes

Quotation marks are typically used to indicate that the words were spoken or written by someone else.  But where should the punctuation for quotes go—inside or outside the quotation marks?

The punctuation mark’s location is determined by whether the quotation is at the beginning or end of a sentence.

In general, quotations at the end of a sentence have a punctuation mark before the final quote marks.  If a phrase introduces the quote, the punctuation mark comes before the quotation marks.

And since this is the English language, there are a few exceptions.  But don’t worry—they are easy to remember.

To quote Private Prewitt from James Jones’ novel From Here to Eternity:  “Let’s get this show on the road.”

Does Punctuation Go Inside or Outside Quote Marks?

Punctuation can go both outside and inside the quote marks.  Here’s an example of the punctuation outside the quote marks:

John wrote, “I regret to tell you, Susan, that I am breaking off our engagement.”

When a phrase introducing a quote needs punctuation, the punctuation comes before the quote marks.  Therefore, it doesn’t matter whether you use a comma, colon, or period.

In other words, the words or phrases before the quote marks should be on the outside.

Punctuation at the end of a quotation goes inside the quote marks:

John wrote, “It’s been nice knowing you.”

Alice asked, “Won’t you reconsider?”

There is an exception:

Did you hear that after John dumped Alice, he said, “It’s been nice knowing you”?

Since the sentence is a question, the question mark goes outside the quote mark.  John didn’t ask a question; the writer did.

This rarely happens because most people would paraphrase what John said.

Did you hear that after he dumped Alice, John said it was nice knowing her?

The short version: in most cases, it’s punctuation first, then quote marks.

What Are the Rules for Punctuation with Dialogue?

Since dialogue is a conversation between several people, the same rules apply.  However, there is an exception.

If one person’s dialogue is broken into paragraphs in a conversation, leave off punctuation quotation marks until the end of that person’s words.

“I was very tired last night, so I drank a cup of coffee.  I usually do this at night, especially if I need to stay up late and study.

“But lately I’ve been having problems going to sleep.  It’s one thing to walk around on 6 hours of sleep, but two hours is a Twilight Zone experience.

“So I’m thinking of trying something else to stay awake.  Do you have any ideas?”

Although this exception seems odd at first, it keeps the dialogue from seeming like a conversation between two people:

“I was very tired last night, so I drank a cup of coffee.  I usually do this at night, especially if I need to stay up late and study.”

“But lately I’ve been having problems going to sleep.  It’s one thing to walk around on 6 hours of sleep, but two hours is a Twilight Zone experience.”

“So I’m thinking of trying something else to stay awake.  Do you have any ideas?”

A reader would think that dialogue is between two people and be confused.

However, most writers would put all the dialogue into one paragraph.

“I was very tired last night, so I drank a cup of coffee.  I usually do this at night, especially if I need to stay up late and study.  But lately I’ve been having problems going to sleep.  It’s one thing to walk around on 6 hours of sleep, but two hours is a Twilight Zone experience.  So I’m thinking of trying something else to stay awake.  Do you have any ideas?”

“How about you do the homework first and then get on Twitch,” I said.

How Should I Punctuate Quote Marks Inside of Quotes?

Sometimes it is necessary to quote a quote.  How is the punctuation for quotes different in that situation?

In most cases, it isn’t.

This morning Marcia randomly said, “I learned that it was Mark Twain who said, ‘The secret of getting ahead is getting started.’”

The same principle applies—punctuation first, then quotation marks.

The King’s English and Punctuation

This guide has focused on what is commonly referred to as the American style of punctuation.  However, the British style has some differences.  Since those differences could be another post, a rule of thumb is to do the opposite—use single quotation marks and put the punctuation mark after the quote mark. 

However, a deeper dive shows the British rules are far less consistent, and exploring them should best be left to a grammar nerd.

Bottom Line

Hopefully, this guide helps you use punctuation for quotes correctly.  Use the guideline punctuation mark first, quotation mark second, and you will be good to go.

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