How quotation marks and other punctuation marks meet

Do you consider yourself American or British?

This isn’t a trick question. I’m not trying to dig into your lineage.

American English differs quite differently from British English in many ways.

  • What’s the craic? AKA What’s up?
  • Waffle AKA ramble
  • Pissed AKA drunk
  • It’s pissing down AKA It’s raining

In addition to many fun words and phrases that differ, there’s also different ways to handle punctuation. Specifically, quotation marks and periods.

In British English, “quotation marks go inside the period”.

In American English, “quotation marks go outside of the period.”

As a writing major who grew up in Michigan, the British English way to manage periods with quotation marks really upsets me. It’s unreal, actually, how much it bothers me. American writers and friends, please do this properly. British friends, carry on with your unique British ways (and please send me a box of Digestives – the chocolate-covered kind).

But it goes beyond just periods.

As Grammar Girl says, “semicolons, colons, and dashes always go outside quotation marks.” We can think of this rule as an interruption.

Johanna turned to Kerry and said, “Bob said he ‘valued’ my work. Can you believe it? I feel like this job is the perfect fit”—right before Bob fired her.

However, this dialogue and dash rule is flexible. When using a dash to cut off a character’s dialogue, keep the dash inside the quotation marks, according to The Editor’s Blog. We can think about this rule as an abrupt halt that leaves both the character who is speaking and the reader waiting.

“Johanna, stop!” Kerry whispered through gritted teeth. “Your boss—”

Yet, the plot thickens.

Using question marks and exclamation points means using a different rule when it comes to quotation marks. When the question or exclamation is part of quoted portion of the sentence, the mark goes inside the quotation marks. When the question or exclamation is not part of the quoted portion of the sentence, the mark goes outside the quotation marks.

Bob folded his hands and leaned back in his chair. “Johanna, you’re fired.” He raised his hand to stop her from speaking. “I gave you multiple warnings, but you have been letting your work slip for months. This is the last straw!”

“Oh, Johanna. I’m so sorry. He really said ‘This is the last straw’?”

Obviously, the more punctuation marks you add to your stories, the more complicated every sentence becomes. But don’t worry. There are bloggers, writers, and editors out there who have provided our questions with answers when we’re unsure. So, the next time you’re unsure about how to use a punctuation mark, learn from the professionals and expand your punctuation knowledge by doing a little online research or visiting your local library.

Challenge: If placing quotation marks is one of your writing weaknesses, take some of your writing time to practice this skill. Honing your talent now will pay off down the road. If you are a punctuation pro, share your punctuation pet peeves down below in the comment section.

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