Outside or inside, before or after? Punctuating quotes can be a bit of a minefield, as Luke Finley points out.
A quick search on the SfEP forums reveals that punctuating quotes is an area that trips many of us up – and not just those with less experience. This isn’t a surprise, because there’s extensive variation in the conventions. In this column I focus on quotes in non-fiction texts: conventions for reported speech in fiction are arguably even more subjective.
In academic writing and other materials that cite in a strict academic style (policy papers and the like), the conventions are fairly fixed.
In US English, closing punctuation goes inside the quote marks, whether the quote is a complete sentence or not, and whether the punctuation was there in the original quoted material or not:
Svolik identifies the “twin problems of dictatorship,” going on to explore how different institutions address these problems.
In UK English, in the same example the comma would follow the closing quote mark (which would more usually be a single quote mark – but that’s another story). However, UK English does put the closing punctuation inside the quote marks if the quote is, or ends with, a complete sentence:
Balkin says that ‘almost all political activity may be constitutional. Often we may only know what counts later on, when practice and precedents become settled.’
Punctuating with citations
Where a parenthetical citation (eg in author–date style) appears immediately after the quote, the punctuation follows it, in UK or US style:
‘… precedents become settled’ (Balkin, 2011).
In displayed quotes there are typically no quote marks to interfere with the closing punctuation. In this case, if there is a citation it follows the closing punctuation:
… precedents become settled. (Balkin, 2011)
Other non-fiction texts
Separating quotes from text
Where quoted material is part of a longer sentence, it’s often separated from the text using commas:
He said, ‘show me where the comma should be’.
In more formal writing, or where the quoted material is longer, a colon might take the place of the comma. Or it might be omitted altogether for very short quotes or where the quote is integrated into the syntax of the sentence:
About commas, he said simply ‘Hate them!’
He said that he was kept awake at night worrying about ‘the horrors of punctuation’.
Punctuation inside or out?
The UK approach is generally to be guided by whether or not the punctuation ‘belongs’ to the quoted matter. ‘Belongs’ is often interpreted (eg The Economist Style Guide goo.gl/w52udb) to mean a natural pause regardless of how the original quote was punctuated.
‘This sentence’, she said, ‘has a full stop but no commas.’
‘On the other hand,’ she continued, ‘this sentence has both.’
The US approach – which is common in British fiction and increasingly in journalistic writing – is to punctuate inside the quote marks regardless of whether the sense of the quoted matter requires it.
Use your own good judgement
As is clear from my qualified statements, these are conventions, not hard-and-fast rules. Sources such as Butcher’s Copy-editing and New Hart’s Rules are good for the range of approaches but don’t necessarily tell you which to use in a particular case. Others, such as Trask’s Penguin Guide to Punctuation, offer their own preferred approach – which may be clear and persuasively argued, but doesn’t necessarily preclude a different approach.
In the end, it comes down to your client’s preference, the need for consistency and your own judgement. For example, Trask argues for minimal punctuation – why use additional marks to signal that a quote is coming up when the quote marks already do that job? This notion is attractively straightforward but, as an editor or especially as a proofreader, you won’t always be in a position to impose such an approach.
Luke Finley, an Advanced Professional Member of the SfEP, set up Luke Finley Editorial in 2013 and left the public sector soon after, to edit and proofread full time. He will edit just about anything but specialises in social policy.
This article first appeared in the SfEP magazine, Editing Matters, in November 2016.
Posted by Abi Saffrey, SfEP blog coordinator.
Picture credit: raphink, on Pixabay.
The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the SfEP.
Thank you very much for these tips, Luke. Could you comment/advise on how to style several questions in a row, as in the followling sentence?
Common questions I have been asked by local residents include ‘What times will noisy works take place?’ ‘Will my child be able to do their homework in the evening?’ ‘Is it during my baby’s nap time?’