Punctuating the end of a quotation can be tricky, especially in American English, where some punctuation marks default to the inside of the quotation marks, while others can be placed outside the quotation marks. The divisions break down into two groups:
Inside Quotation Marks: When ending a quotation, place periods and commas within the quotation marks, even if the period or comma is not part of the original quotation.
Outside or Inside Quotation Marks: However, when ending a quotation in a question mark, exclamation point, colon, or semicolon, place the punctuation outside the quotation, unless that punctuation is part of the original quoted language. If the punctuation is part of the original quoted language, place it inside the quotation marks.
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.
Treat periods the same way–always put them inside:
Paul Harvey concluded with his usual closer, “And that’s the rest of the story.”
Well . . . the period goes inside the quotation marks in most cases. If the sentence ends in a parenthetical citation, the period goes after the citation. This placement encloses the citation within the larger sentence to show that the citation refers to that sentence. In a sense, the sentence swallows up the parenthetical citation with that period. Look:
The broadcasting legend put it best when he said, “And that’s the rest of the story” (Harvey).
But other than that one exception, the period’s default placement is inside the quotation marks. However, question marks works differently.
If the question mark is not part of the quoted language or dialogue line, place the question mark outside the quotation marks:
Why did Paul Harvey choose to end all of his programs with his signature line, “And that’s the rest of the story”?
However, if the question mark is part of the quoted language, put it inside the quotation marks:
Ed asked, “Don’t you remember Paul Harvey’s radio program?”
Removing Parts of Quotations: Ellipses
When you remove part of a quotation for the sake of efficiency or clarity, use an ellipsis (three dots) to replace the omitted part.
Here’s an example of using an ellipsis to show an omission from a quotation:
First, here is the full text from the quote. I have marked the part that will be omitted in bold:
MLK, in his momentous “I Have a Dream” speech, proclaimed, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
And here is how a writer might omit elements to save space or to get to the point:
MLK, in his momentous “I Have a Dream” speech, proclaimed, “I have a dream that my four little children . . . will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
Although a normal ellipsis is allowable for showing omissions from a quote, many writers prefer to put the ellipsis in brackets to show that the ellipsis is not part of the original quote. After all, the original language could have a stylistic ellipsis to show a long pause or a hesitation in speech. Bracketed ellipses allow writers to differentiate between a stylistic ellipsis and an ellipsis of omission.
Here is how to frame the ellipsis of omission in brackets:
MLK, in his momentous “I Have a Dream” speech, proclaimed, “I have a dream that my four little children [. . .] will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
This use of brackets follows the larger rule for using brackets:
Brackets show an insertion of new material into a quotation.
To learn more about the ellipsis and its many applications in writing, click here.
Making Insertions and Replacements within Quotes: Brackets
Writers use brackets to add their own clarifications or adjustments to quotations. Here is an example:
Here is the original quote:
Senator Smith: “I will cast my vote only for laws ensuring that my African-American and Latino neighbors will have the same opportunity that I have enjoyed.”
And here is the quote, adjusted to fit the writer’s third-person perspective of Smith:
Senator Smith stated that he would “cast [his] vote only for laws ensuring that [his] African-American and Latino neighbors will have the same opportunity that [he has] enjoyed.”
Logically enough, the writer should discuss Senator Smith as he and not as I. The brackets show this shift in perspective, while indicating that the writer has adjusted Senator Smith’s original language.
Did you notice how the quote above actually incorporates Smith’s quotation into the writer’s own syntax? The transition is almost seamless, but almost is the key word: the quotation marks show readers where Smith’s quote begins—and where it ends.
To learn more about brackets, read on.
Next Up: More on Brackets
The next punctuation technique explored in “Punctuation Toolbox” is brackets (discussed briefly in the section directly above). Click the link below to learn more.
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).