This is such a tough question! If you’re confused about whether to put the punctuation mark inside or outside the quotation mark, you’re certainly not alone. The answer depends on where you are in the world, which punctuation mark you’re using, and the content of your quoted material.
For starters, are you American or British? If you’re writing in England, or in another country that uses British writing conventions, you’ll want to place periods and commas outside quotation marks. For people in the United States, periods and commas go inside the quotation marks.
Here’s an example of the difference . . .
American English: At different times, he described the job as “tough,” “fulfilling,” and “fun.”
British English: At different times, he described the job as ‘tough’, ‘fulfilling’, and ‘fun’.
You’ll notice that the American English example uses double quotation marks, whereas the British style uses single quotation marks.
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Now, we’ve decided to focus on the American style, since our site is based in the U.S.
When you use a colon, semicolon, parenthesis, exclamation mark, or question mark, the American rules dictate that the punctuation should go outside of the quotes. Note: This is the opposite of what happens with a period or comma. Confusing, right? So, our best advice is to keep an eye out for these particular punctuations (colons, semicolons, question marks, and parentheses). When you spot them, think about moving the punctuation to the outside of the double quotes.
How many students selected the answer “Benjamin Franklin”?
I called the flowers “beautiful”; she didn’t look up.
What Are You Quoting?
Next, you have to ask yourself about the content of the quotation. Is the colon, semicolon, parenthesis, exclamation point, or question mark a part of the direct quote? If that’s the case, you should leave it as part of the quotation, placing it inside the quotation marks.
Take a look at the following sentences:
She took a class entitled “Introduction to Engineering: Dreaming, Planning, and Building.”
He asked, “Are you hungry?”
Because the colon and question mark are part of the quotes, they’re included inside the quotation marks. In the second example, when a question or exclamation mark comes at the end of a sentence, there’s no need for an additional ending punctuation after the quote marks.
Check with Your Favorite Style Guide
When in doubt, check with your favorite style guide: APA Style, The Chicago Manual of Style, or MLA Style. For instance, the rules about whether to include exclamation points inside or outside the quotation marks may vary from guide to guide.
Luckily, when it comes to periods and commas, the answer to whether they go inside or outside the quotation mark is much simpler. If you’re using American English, they go inside. That’s always true—whether the quotation appears at the beginning of the sentence, in the middle of the sentence, or at the very end.
I’m an award-winning playwright with a penchant for wordplay. After earning a perfect score on the Writing SAT, I worked my way through Brown University by moonlighting as a Kaplan Test Prep tutor. I received a BA with honors in Literary Arts (Playwriting)—which gave me the opportunity to study under Pulitzer Prize-winner Paula Vogel. In my previous roles as new media producer with Rosetta Stone, director of marketing for global ventures with The Juilliard School, and vice president of digital strategy with Up & Coming Media, I helped develop the voice for international brands. From my home office in Maui, Hawaii, I currently work on freelance and ghostwriting projects.