Commas and Quotation Marks
In American English, if you are using a quote that is directly followed by a comma, place the comma inside the quotation marks. Do this even if the comma is not part of the quote.
(Note: This is true as well for periods; however, it is not true for question marks, exclamation points, colons, and semicolons. As a rule, place these punctuation techniques outside of the quotation marks, unless they are part of the original quoted language.)
Here is an example of placing a comma that occurs just after a quote:
Paul Harvey concluded with his usual closer, “And that’s the rest of the story,” a line that delights me even now, as I hear it in my mind.
I know, I know: this doesn’t make sense. Why put something inside a quote if it is not part of the quote? And heck, doesn’t this defeat the entire purpose of quotation marks, since they are supposed to differentiate between what is part of the quote and what is not? (Sigh.)
Well, the British agree with me, so they place the comma outside the quotation marks, which shows that it is not part of the quote:
Example: Paul Harvey concluded with his usual closer, “And that’s the rest of the story”, a line that delights me even now, as I hear it in my mind. (British English)
However, British writers do place the comma within the quotation marks if the comma is part of the original quoted language. This deviation allows them to differentiate and to express more precise word-for-word (or, in this case, comma-for-comma) quotations than those seen in the American style.
Still, even if our friends across the pond have a more logical approach than ours, those of us writing in the States should stick with the conventions of American English. (However, if you’re writing for a British audience, make sure to use British comma placement.)
Commas and Parentheses
If you use a parenthetical phrase mid-sentence where a comma occurs (which happens frequently in my writing, as you may have noticed), always place the comma after the parenthetical phrase:
Example (correct): Since commas are important to writing (as pauses are important to speech), you should never neglect to use them in your prose.
Example (incorrect): Since commas are important to writing, (as pauses are important to speech) you should never neglect to use them in your prose.
There is sound logic behind this comma placement. In the sentence above, the parenthetical phrase, “as pauses are important to speech,” is in response to the clause, “since commas are important to writing.” To show that the parenthetical phrase is to be grouped with that preceding clause, the comma encloses the parenthetical material within the clause. In this sense, the comma enables the clause to swallow up the parenthetical phrase. In effect, the parenthetical material becomes directly linked with the clause it modifies and not with the clause that follows.
Commas and Periods
In rare cases, writers are faced with situations in which they must place a comma after a period. To the novice eye, placing a comma directly after a period looks odd, so new writers often hesitate at the thought of this particular comma placement.
How is this handled? Simple: Just set aside your fears and boldly place the comma after the period. Look at the example below.
To show real-life examples of effective writing, I often cite the work of Martin Luther King Jr., which is why I keep a copy of his collected writings near my desk.
Related Point: This practice of following an abbreviating period with a comma applies to commas, but it does not apply to periods at the ends of sentences. If you have a situation that seems to call for two adjacent periods, do not use two periods. Simply write one period, and it will do double-duty by serving both functions. Consider the example below, in which I have simplified the sentence above so that Jr. comes at the end of the sentence. Notice that the single period of that sentence serves two functions: (1) it acts as the period for abbreviating the title Junior, and (2) it acts as the period to end the sentence.
To show real-life examples of effective writing, I often cite the work of Martin Luther King Jr.
Now let’s throw a parenthetical phrase into the mix, just to see how it is handled with the ending period:
To show real-life examples of effective writing, I often cite the work of Martin Luther King, Jr. (one reason I keep a copy of his collected essays near my desk).
In this latest case, I use two separate periods, since the two periods are not adjacent, but separated by the parenthetical phrase. See how that works? (Note: This applies as well to the use of the abbreviation for etcetera: etc.)
A Quick Comma Detail: Did you notice that I placed a comma before the title, “Jr.” in the final example, but not in the two examples that precede it? Which is the correct way–Martin Luther King, Jr. (comma), or Martin Luther King Jr. (no comma)? The answer: it’s your choice. The comma that precedes titles like Jr. and Sr. is optional. I prefer to use it, so long as it does not disrupt the sentence. I omitted it from the first two sentences, since I did not want it to distract my reader from the comma placement I was discussing in those example sentences. Otherwise, my default is to include the comma, since it shows a slight change in pitch that occurs when expressing such titles.
Next Up: Should We Place Commas between Two Adjectives?
The next article will cover the use (or lack) of commas between adjectives. After that, we will discuss the stylistic use of commas, and then we will conclude this series on commas and move on to other punctuation techniques.
Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to everyday Americans. In addition to writing this blog, Mr. Altman produces and hosts The Writer’s Toolbox Podcast, and he is currently developing a number of book projects that examine the role of language in popular media and everyday life. His book, Myths We Learned in Grade School English, explores how adult writers can overcome the false writing rules learned in childhood. When he is not writing or teaching, Mr. Altman enjoys grilling out and savoring the mild summers of Central New York, where he is a professor of English at Onondaga Community College (Syracuse, NY).