Punctuation Inside or Outside Quotation Marks?

“What do you mean?”

“That’s so confusing!” 

“I don’t understand quotation marks rules.”

There are lots of rules about using quotation marks, and it can be difficult to know where to place different punctuation marks.

For example, do you put a period inside or outside quotation marks? What about a comma? What if you have single and double quotation marks in the same sentence?

Quotation marks are used in many situations, so they show up a lot in writing. For instance, you use them for dialogue, direct quotations, short titles, and scare quotes.

But have no fear, because by the end of this article, you’ll know all the quotation marks rules.

punctuation and quotation marks

Punctuation Rules

There are lots of rules about using quotation marks, and it can be difficult to know where to place different punctuation marks.

For example, do you put a period inside or outside quotation marks? What about a comma? What if you have single and double quotation marks in the same sentence?

Quotation marks are used in many situations, so they show up a lot in writing. For instance, you use them for dialogue, direct quotations, short titles, and scare quotes.

But have no fear, because by the end of this article, you’ll know all the quotation marks rules.

When to Use Quotation Marks

The most common uses of quotation marks are either for dialogue or for direct quotations.

Examples

  • “Peony, could you pass me the salt?” / “No, it’s closer to Henry.” (dialogue)
  • According to Dr. Marshall, “The price of oil is increasing.” (direct quotation)

In the first example, two people are talking to each other directly: this is dialogue.

In the second example, the writer is copying the exact words of Dr. Marshall. And any time you quote someone word for word, you need to give them credit.

If it’s a short direct quote it’s called a run-in quotation. That means it “runs in” to the rest of the text. In the example above, Dr. Marshall’s exact words are part of another sentence. In this case, you always use quotation marks.

The other type of direct quotation is a block quotation. For block quotes, you don’t use quotation marks. Instead, you indent the entire section of directly quoted text.

And if you’re not quoting someone directly, you’re writing an indirect quotation. In this case, you don’t use quotation marks.

Direct quotation examples

  • “Write every answer in full sentences,” Mr. Lawrence told the class.

Here’s the same sentence written as an indirect quote:

  • Mr. Lawrence told the class to write every answer in full sentences.

Quotation Mark Rules

With these simple rules, you’ll never doubt where to place a period or whether to put your comma inside or outside quotation marks. 

Quotation Marks With a Period

According to American style guides, periods should always go inside the quotation marks.

  • “You heard me. Go clean your room.” 
  • Yesterday, my mother said, “You can be anything you want when you grow up.”

Even if the period wasn’t in the original quotation, it should go inside double quotes. 

Quotation Marks With a Comma

Following American rules, commas go inside quotation marks just like periods.

  • “Absolutely nothing interests me,” said Syd. 
  • Henrietta told me about “the absolutely amazing and incredibly exciting history of zippers,” but I didn’t really follow her story. 
  • After “the best night of his life,” Carlos wanted to sleep all day.

Quotation Marks With Other Punctuation

What do you do with punctuation marks that aren’t commas or periods? Well, it depends.

If the punctuation marks are part of the original quotation, they go inside the closing quotation marks to show that. This goes for question marks, exclamation points, colons, semicolons, and dashes.

  • Yorick said “I love you!” to his cat. 
  • “Who is your favorite uncle?” Arnold asked. 
  • Yesterday, my Dad yelled, “Don’t waste so much food!”

However, if the punctuation marks are not part of the original quote, they go outside the quotation marks.

  • Do you know “the most amazing poet in the universe”?
  • I’ve never read one of her articles, but I’ve heard good things about “Meditating Before Eating”!
  • He’s never told me about his worst “nightmare” – but I think it has to do with unsharpened pencils. Mine are about monsters. 

Quotations and Capitalization

There are three rules about when to capitalize the first word of a quotation.

1. If the original quotation is a complete sentence, capitalize the first letter.

  • “Everybody should recycle,” says my Nan. 
  • “What do you mean?!” shouted Garfield.

Even if the quotation starts part way through your sentence, keep the first letter capitalized.

  • This morning the principal said, “Go to your first class directly after assembly.”
  • According to Monika, “Ice cream is the best food ever.”

2. If you’re only quoting a few words or a phrase, don’t capitalize the quotation.

  • The “most important meal of the day” is breakfast, according to my mother.
  • You don’t like “progress,” do you? 
  • Sophie told me my cat is “the king of the backyard.”

3. If you split a direct quote that’s a full sentence, don’t capitalize the second half.

  • “What you’re saying,” argued Charlie, “is that cats are better than dogs.”
  • “I don’t know what Iulia told you,” replied Adela, “but I always do my homework.”

Quotes Within Quotes

Most of the time, we use double quotation marks for dialogue and direct quotes. However, what do you do for quotations within quotations?

It would look really awkward and clumsy to use two sets of double quotation marks. So, instead, we use one set of double and one set of single quotation marks. The main quotation still uses double quotes, and the inside quotation uses single ones.

Examples

  • Albert said, “I never understood the phrase ‘the meat of the issue.’ Is there bacon somewhere?”
  • “What do you mean ‘Darcy’s coming to dinner’?” asked Ted.

You follow this same rule for quotations within a headline (such as in a newspaper or magazine.) So, if you saw these headlines, you’d use single quotation marks instead of double:

  • President Promises ‘No More Corruption’
  • ‘Best Day Ever,’ Says School Student
  • ‘Remembering My Past’ Published By New Magazine

Single Quotation Marks

Other than quotes within quotes, there are a few other cases when you can use single quotation marks.

Most often, parentheses are used for translations within a text. But sometimes, people use single quotation marks.

Examples

  • When he said adios ‘goodbye,’ I cried a lot. 
  • Before traveling to Japan, he learned the word arigato ‘thank you.’

Another use for single quotation marks is for common words that have become specialized vocabulary words. In certain fields, such as philosophy, history, or political science, you might come across this (in academic writing, particularly.)

Examples

  • What’s the pointy part inside the flower called? / It’s called the ‘stigma.’
  • She didn’t realize that ‘caulk’ was a substance that stopped her sink from leaking.

Other Uses of Quotation Marks

There are a few other times you might see double quotation marks. 

Scare Quotes

First, there are scare quotes. These are the written equivalent of air quotes. So, you use them if you want to draw attention to a word or phrase that doesn’t usually have quotes around it.

You might do this just to highlight your phrase. But, often, these quotation marks make the reader think you doubt the meaning of the word, as if you were using air quotes to be sarcastic.

Examples

  • I don’t believe in “progress” when you go about it like that. 
  • My friend hired some “professionals,” but they don’t know what they’re doing. 

Titles of Short Works

Conventions for writing titles change based on the length of the work. In general, titles of long works are written in italics, but the titles of short works are written with quotation marks.

For example, a book’s title would be in italics, but the name of a chapter within the book would have quotation marks around it. Or the title of a music album would be italicized, but the title of a song on that album would be in quotation marks.

Here are some examples of titles in quotation marks:

  • Book chapter: “The Boy Who Lived” in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
  • Magazine article: “Modern Art and the Esteem Machine” in The New Yorker
  • Essay: “Once More to the Lake” by E. B. White
  • Song: “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
  • Short poem or story: “There is no Frigate like a Book” by Emily Dickinson

Nicknames

Another time you might see quotation marks is for nicknames. They’d look something like this: 

  • Georgie “The Champion” Smith
  • Charlotte “Char” Lee

American vs. British English

If you look in American style guides, you’ll see all the rules we’ve written above. But if you ask British people, they’ll tell you something a little different. In general, the rules of quotation marks are similar, but there are two major changes.

Punctuation Inside Quotation Marks

For American people, commas and periods go inside quotation marks, even if the punctuation isn’t part of the original quote.

But in British English, all punctuation goes outside the closing quote marks, unless it’s part of the original quotation.

Examples

  • “Toto is my favorite character,” said Sian. (American)
  • “Toto is my favorite character”, said Sian. (British)
  • Albert said, “There’s a ghost in the closet.” (American)
  • Albert said, “There’s a ghost in the closet”. (British)

Reversing Double and Single Quotation Marks

The other difference is when to use double and single marks for quotes within quotes.

In the United States, regular quotations use double marks. And then if there’s a quote within that, you use single quote marks.

However, according to British rules, you start with the single and then go to double.

Examples

  • “What do you mean ‘the true history of Atlantis’?” asked Ted. “There’s no such place!” (American)
  • ‘What do you mean “the true history of Atlantis”?’ asked Ted. ‘There’s no such place!’ (British)
  • “I didn’t realize ‘To be or not to be’ was from Hamlet!” said Sharon. (American)
  • ‘I didn’t realize “To be or not to be” was from Hamlet!’ said Sharon. (British)

Exceptions to the Rule

The only time you may see commas and periods outside the quotation marks in American English is for passwords or other computer inputs. That way, you won’t be confused about whether the punctuation is part of the input or not.

Examples

  • The computer lab password is “Alpha2$!”.
  • Did you hear that Mark’s username is “ilovedogs”?

Use Quotation Marks Like a Pro

“Have you understood everything?” we asked.

These are the most common quotation mark rules, and they’re pretty straightforward once you see some examples. After a little bit of practice, you’ll be placing your punctuation like a pro.

And for more great tips and tricks to improve your writing, check out the other grammar pages on this site!