Quotation Mark Questions? Think Symphony Orchestra!

The Grammar Patrol We (Edith Hope Fine and Judith Josephson) are the Grammar Patrol. Both of us taught for years and are now writers, with thirty plus books between us, including our two popular grammar guides, Nitty-Gritty Grammar and More Nitty-Gritty Grammar. For close to twenty years, we taught writing and grammar basics and now we blog about grammar for writers.
Does your head spin with questions about quotation marks?

• Do commas go inside or outside of quotation marks?

• What about question marks?

• Colons? Semicolons?

• Those pesky dashes and exclamation points?

Orchestra InstrumentsTake a moment to think of soothing music. In a symphony orchestra, some instruments, like second violins and bass violins, are workhorses. They do their jobs and follow the rules. But some all-stars take the spotlight. Oboes sound that pivotal “A” for tuning. Trumpets announce themselves. Ta-da!

The same goes for punctuation marks when used with quotation marks. Some are steady. Some are splashy.

First, we’ll share a grammar rarity: some always rules for periods, commas, colons, and semicolons.

Second, sound the trumpets! Think of question marks, exclamation points, and dashes as the prima donnas. They get special privileges. There’s no always with them.

Here are three cool “Inside/Outside” rules for remembering how punctuation works with quotation marks.

1. Periods and commas always go inside quotation marks.

Robert Frost wrote the poem “The Road Not Taken.”

Amy’s airy office, “the treehouse,” was her writing sanctuary.


2. Colons and semicolons always go outside quotation marks.

Morris Munon was “FTA”: That’s “failure to appear” in bounty-hunter lingo. (Hot Six, Janet Evanovich)

The trek through the Amazon was billed as a “pleasure trip”; it was more like an endurance test.


3. Question marks, exclamation points, and dashes . . .

Drum roll! Here come the prima donnas! Where you put these marks depends on what you are trying to say.

?       !        —       When they go inside the quotation marks

These three marks go inside quotation marks when they refer only to the quoted sentence or question.

Pete Seeger wrote the antiwar song “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”

Beatrix shouted at the rude giant, “You must not eat the finest cow in the land!” (Rude Giants, Audrey Wood)

“Call security! The gorilla has escap—” yelled the zookeeper.

?       !        —       When they go outside the quotation marks

 These three marks go outside the quotation mark when they refer to the entire sentence.

Who said, “Nothing ventured nothing gained”?   (Answer: Dates back to 1374, Chaucer)

Rodrigo can’t possibly compete with “Mr. Music”!

“I’ll never be caught”—a crook’s famous last words.

So, if you’re ever in a quandary about punctuation with quotation marks, just head back to the dulcet tones of the “Inside/Outside Rules.” Periods and commas: always inside. Colons and semicolons: always outside. With the prima donnas, ta-da!—question marks, exclamation points, and dashes—ask yourself whether they refer to part of the sentence or the whole sentence.

Any Quotation Mark Questions?

You’ll find much more on quotation marks in our two Nitty-Gritty Grammar guides. Are any other quotation mark quandaries plaguing you? Let us know. Other people might have the same questions, and we love hearing from you.

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One Response to “Quotation Mark Questions? Think Symphony Orchestra!”

  1. Becky Stiles Says:

    Just what I needed! Thanks. Am always wondering if I’m doing this right. I totally avoid colons and semicolons because of insecurity. These “rules” may even help with parentheses – are there similar guidelines?

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