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A Word, Please: When it comes to quotation marks, where do other punctuation marks go?

Spinach at a Moss Landing farm near the Salinas Valley growing region of Monterey County.
Spinach at a Moss Landing farm near the Salinas Valley growing region of Monterey County. Grammar expert June Casagrande gives the following as an example of where to place the period when using multiple closing quotation marks: “I was shocked when Rick said, ‘I call spinach “bitter leaves.”’”
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

A few years ago while copy editing an article, I was shocked to see something like this: “I lecture my sales staff about what I call ‘me syndrome,’” Jones said.

What shocked me was the punctuation. Either the writer or the assignment editor who read the article before me got the quotation marks right. And considering how baffling American punctuation rules can be, that’s shocking.

I was reminded of this rare example of punctuation prowess recently when I came across a sentence that got it wrong, placing the comma after the single closing quotation mark instead of before it: “I lecture my sales staff about what I call ‘me syndrome’,” Jones said.

Lots of people seem to think this is the right order: single quotation mark, then comma or period, then regular quotation mark. But no, in American English, when you have a quotation within a quotation followed by a comma or period, the comma comes before both quotation marks.

Even professional editors can be forgiven for getting this wrong when you consider that the following punctuation is correct: “It wasn’t nothin’,” Avery said.

So why is it wrong to have the single mark before the comma in our first example but right in the second? Because they’re different punctuation marks. The marks around ‘me syndrome’ are single quotation marks. But the punctuation at the end of nothin’ isn’t a quotation mark. It’s an apostrophe. And to avoid errors in tough situations like these, it helps to understand single quotation marks and a few other punctuation rules.

Grammar columnist June Casagrande shares six advanced apostrophe uses even astute writers can get wrong.

Single quotation marks indicate a quotation within a quotation: Tracy recalled, “I was shocked when Rick said, ‘I hate spinach.’” A lot of news agencies use single quote marks in headlines instead of regular quotation marks because they save space and are easier on the eyes. But that’s the only time they can be used like regular quotation marks in American English.

Don’t use single quote marks as what I call “quotation marks lite,” for example instead of double quote marks in this sentence. Even if when you’re just pointing out a word you’re talking about, like “this,” or if you’re writing the title of a movie or book, double quotes are the only correct options.

For quotes within quotes within quotes, alternate between double quotation marks and singles: Tracy recalled, “I was shocked when Rick said, ‘I call spinach “bitter leaves.”’” Theoretically, you could go on like that indefinitely, nesting single quotes within double quotes within single quotes and on and on. Obviously, that doesn’t come up much. But no matter how many quotes in quotes you’re writing, the period stays inside all of them.

Why? Because that’s the rule in American English: a period or comma always comes before a closing quotation mark or single quotation mark. British English is different, and some influential publishers, like Wikipedia, follow British rules on this matter. But for us Americans, the quote mark always comes after the period or comma.

The same doesn’t apply to quotation marks or exclamation points, which can come either before or after a closing quotation mark depending on whether they apply to the whole sentence or just the quoted portion: Did Bob just say “hello”? Bob just asked, “How are you?”

A colon or semicolon always comes after a closing quotation mark. This is why Bob said “hello”: He saw his friend.

All the same rules apply to single quotation marks. So when you have a single quote mark followed by a double, that doesn’t change where the period goes. It goes inside all the quote marks.

Apostrophes are different. When you’re using an apostrophe to stand in for a dropped letter, for example the letter G in nothin’, it’s part of the word. So you can’t separate it from the word by inserting another punctuation mark, which is why the period comes after the apostrophe in: It wasn’t nothin’.

— June Casagrande is the author of “The Joy of Syntax: A Simple Guide to All the Grammar You Know You Should Know.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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