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We’re in the communications business. And part of being a good communicator is minding your p’s and q’s. In this blog series, senior copywriter Mike Mathieu gives grammar lessons you might actually remember next time you’re communicating something important.

Do quotation marks fall outside or inside other punctuation marks? As usual in grammar, it depends.

Periods and Commas

They always go inside quotation marks. Always.

It’s hot, but not what I’d call a “heat wave.”

Common mistake: … but not what I’d call a “heat wave”.

This is still only a “heat splash,” which is what I call a hot period that lasts under four days.

Common mistake: This is still only a “heat splash”, which is what I call …

Colons and Semicolons

These go outside quotation marks.

My definition of a “heat fake”: when there’s a lot of sunlight but it’s actually still pretty cold.

Heat fakes are responsible for 50 percent of people who find themselves suffering from “shorts ahead of schedule”; the other 5o percent know it’s cold but wear shorts anyway, as some kind of statement or protest.

Question Marks and Exclamation Points

Sometimes they go outside, sometimes they go inside. They go outside when the question or exclamation is about the quoted material, not a part of it.

Do you understand the “heat index”?

Common mistake: Do you understand the “heat index?”

The thing in quotes isn’t a question in itself. So first we close the quote marks, and then we place the question mark.

Same idea with exclamations.

It’s amazing! It actually measures the “discomfort” felt as a result of the “combined effects of temperature and humidity”!

Question marks and exclamation points go inside quotation marks when the quote itself is a question or exclamation, respectively.

“How difficult do you think it is to measure discomfort?” she asked.

 “My hand is caught in the garbage disposal!”

So that’s that:

  • Periods and commas always inside.
  • Colons and semicolons always outside.
  • Question marks and exclamation points always sometimes.

Bonus tip

People often use single-width quotation marks around figures of speech and turns of phrase they want to draw attention to. But, frankly, it ain’t right.

The meaning of ‘a chilling effect’ depends on whether it’s politics or meteorology being discussed.

Those should be regular old double-wide quotation marks. The only time you use single-wides is when you’re quoting something inside a quote.

“The meaning of ‘a chilling effect’ depends on whether it’s politics or meteorology being discussed,” said the most charming person at the dinner party.

 

Photo credit: Kristina Alexanderson

About

Mike is a former editor and sketch comedian who now serves in the writing contingent of the Creative Services team. He types out and dreams up engaging stories for clients of all kinds.

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