Where to Place a Closing Quotation Mark Relative to Punctuation Marks
A common error in some people’s writing is the misplacement of a quotation mark at the end of a sentence or section of a sentence. Do I write: “. or .”?
The rule is that you place the closing quotation mark after commas and periods, the most common punctuation marks. Note this example:
- “After the game,” Bill said, “I will come right home.”
However, a special set of rules applies when either the quoted material or the “core sentence” – the sentence inside which you have placed the quoted material – requires a question mark or an exclamation point.
Whenever the question mark or exclamation point belongs solely to the quoted material, you continue to place the closing quotation mark after these two punctuation marks. (In these cases, the core sentence is a statement.) Note these examples:
- Joe’s question was, “Have you seen my calculator?”
- The fireman ordered, “Leave this building at once!”
Whenever the question mark or exclamation point belongs to the core sentence, you must place the closing quotation mark before the question mark or exclamation point. This stands to reason because the core sentence’s punctuation must stand out as belonging to the whole sentence and not to the quoted material. Observe these examples:
- Did I hear Joe say, “You have late practice today”?
- I ordered you, “Stay in your seat unless told otherwise”!
There are two punctuation marks that you must be especially careful of, the semi-colon and the colon. You must always place the closing quotation mark before these two punctuation marks. Note these examples:
- Jim said, “Let’s leave”; Jane said, “Let’s not.”
- Jim asked, “Can’t we leave?”; Jane asked, “Can’t we stay?”
- Here is an example of a license plate that is truly “creative”: BGR8FUL.
More examples of Correct Positioning of Closing Quotation Marks Relative to an Assortment of Closing Punctuation Marks
Is this forecast to be trusted, “There will be a five-inch snowfall”? [The core sentence is a question] The parent who arrived at lunchtime said, “The snow is not sticking”; [before a semi-colon] she added, “This is so despite four hours of snowfall.” [after a period] One could ask, “When do I start counting the number of inches?” [The core sentence is a statement.] “Of course,” [after a comma] someone might respond, “you start counting from the first sign of snow.” [after a period]. Contrariwise, someone else might say, “You must start counting only after the last flake has already fallen.” [after a period] Now one forecaster might say, “It depends on the type of snow”; [before a semi-colon] another might say, “We do predicting, but we do not do verifying!” [The core sentence is a statement.] “The answer might differ depending on the ground and air temperature”: [before a colon] this is a comment that a thinking person might add.
Here is a rule of thumb for the positioning of a closing quotation mark relative to other punctuation marks:
- You must place a closing quotation mark after the comma and the period, the most common punctuation marks.
- You must place a closing quotation mark after a question mark or exclamation point that belongs to quoted material but not to the core sentence.
- You must place a closing quotation mark before a question mark or exclamation point that belongs to the core sentence (inside which you have placed some quoted material).
- You must place a closing quotation mark before the two far less common punctuation marks, the semi-colon and the colon.
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