Pin the Terminal Punctuation Mark on the Sentence
Let’s play pin the terminal punctuation on the sentence. In each of the examples below, decide where you’d put the period or question mark.
1. He said, “I like the word ‘clandestine’”
2. Did he say, “I like the word ‘clandestine’”
3. He asked, “Is that an activity to which you would apply the label ‘clandestine’”
4. He said, “Now that’s what I call dancin’”
5. He asked, “You call that dancin’”
6. Did he say, “That’s what I call dancin’”
Hard, isn’t it? It sure is for most writers and editors I see. In fact, in the stories I copy edit, sentences like these trip up even skilled editors I work with (point being: don’t feel bad if you find them tough).
The best way to find the answers is to go very slowly and carefully, applying the basic rules for quotation marks and apostrophes.
The rules state:
- A period or comma in American English always goes before a closing quotation mark, regardless of whether it applies to the whole sentence/clause or just the quoted portion.
- A question mark or exclamation point can go before or after a closing quotation mark, depending on whether it applies to the whole sentence or just the quoted portion.
- Single quotation marks are no different: a period or comma always comes before, a question mark or exclamation point can go before or after.
- Apostrophes are different. They're considered part of the word. So they're never separated from the rest of the word by another punctuation mark.
Applying those rules, you should arrive at the following answers.
1. He said, “I like the word ‘clandestine.’” (The period comes before both the single quotation mark and the double quotation mark.)
2. Did he say, “I like the word ‘clandestine’”? (The question mark goes outside both the single and double quotation marks because the whole sentence, and not just the quoted portion, is a question.)
3. He asked, “Is that an activity to which you would apply the label ‘clandestine’?” (Here, only the quoted portion is a question. The word being singled out by the single quote marks is not a question. So the question mark goes after the single quotation mark but before the double. And, yes, that ends the sentence without need for further punctuation.)
4. He said, “Now that’s what I call dancin’.” (The mark after the N in dancin’ is not a single quote mark. It’s an apostrophe. So the quotation mark rule doesn’t apply. Think of that apostrophe as the letter it’s standing in for, G, which you would never separate from the rest of the word with a period.)
5. He asked, “You call that dancin’?” (The question mark applies to just the quote, not the whole sentence. So it comes before the closing quotation mark. But it should not separate the apostrophe.)
6. Did he say, “That’s what I call dancin’”? (The whole sentence, not just the quoted part, is a question.)
Let’s do a really tough bonus question (one that doesn’t come up much in the real world).
7. Perry said, “Joe asked, ‘Will you please stop dancin’’”
Tough, right? There’s a contraction within a quotation within a quotation within a larger statement. So take it slowly.
Which part is the question? It’s the quote within the quote, right? So we want our question mark after the apostrophe in dancin’ but before the single quotation mark. So it’s:
7. Perry said, “Joe asked, ‘Will you please stop dancin’?’”
You can see why even professional editors stumble over stuff like this.