Question Marks and Exclamations with Quotation MarksPosted by June on August 31, 2015
LABELS: COPY EDITING, PUNCTUATION
A longtime reader of my column, a man named Steve in Moreau, New York, has mentioned multiple times in his e-mails that he doesn’t want to follow the American rule for putting periods and commas inside quotation marks. Like many people, he prefers to put the period or comma after a closing quotation mark in situations like:
I use the word “fabulous”.
In American English, that’s wrong. The period or comma comes before the closing quote mark regardless of the content of the quotation. Of course, almost no one knows that. So almost no one writing online does it right. So it’s just a matter of time before we’re doing it this way (which, by the way, is how it’s done in British English).
Steve was firmly committed to this method until, recently, when asking me a question about numbers, he wrote:
Should I have written, "Eight hundred comes to mind?"
Please note my acquiescence to your rule that I challenged, that quotation marks must always go on the outside of a sentence.
Steve went on to say that he would have rather put the question mark after the closing quotation mark because the quoted part was not a question. Instead, it came within a larger question. So logic would put the question mark after the quote mark.
Would it kill the grammar police to let me clarify that by putting the question mark outside the quotation mark?
I blame myself. Here’s how I replied:
All that stuff I say about periods and commas next to quotation marks? It doesn't apply to question marks and exclamation points. Those follow a different system -- the basic logic that you prefer. If the quoted matter is a question, the question mark goes inside. If the quoted matter is a statement within a question, the question mark goes outside.
Correct: Alfred E. Neuman's catch phrase is "What, me worry?"
Correct: Should I have said, "800 comes to mind"?
Correct: Bart Simpson's catch phrase is "Ay, Caramba!"
Correct: I hate, hate, hate the word "prolly"!
So aesthetics rule with periods and commas. Logic rules with question marks and exclamation points. And because question marks and exclamation points add information to the words, which periods and commas don't, this system makes sense. Welcome to the hell between my ears.
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June Casagrande is a writer and journalist whose weekly grammar/humor column, “A Word, Please,” appears in community newspapers in California, Florida, and Texas. more
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