Welcome to grammar tip Tuesday, where every week I post an unusual, unknown, or otherwise helpful grammar tip to help you be smarter than everyone else.
Today’s topic? Colons and semicolons and question marks and other types of punctuation with quotation marks, brought to you by Chicago Manual of Style 16th edition, 6.10:
“Colons and semicolons—unlike periods and commas—follow closing quotation marks; question marks and exclamation points follow closing quotation marks unless they belong within the quoted matter.”
I see writers do this incorrectly all the time. The best way to illustrate this rule is with a few examples:
“I am excited!”
“What are you doing here?”
“I am bored.”
In all of the above examples, the punctuation mark goes inside the quotation marks because the exclamation point, question mark, and period are all part of the quotation. BUT consider:
Which of Shakespeare’s characters said, “All the world’s a stage”? (Example from CMOS)
In this case, the question mark is outside the quotes. Why? Because the quotation itself “All the world’s a stage” is not a question. The entire sentence is the question, so you put the question mark on the outside. You can tell where to put the punctuation by whether or not it’s part of the quotation or part of the larger sentence.
Now let’s move on to commas, periods, colons, and semicolons.
In American English, periods and commas are placed inside the quotation marks. (I loved the song “Yellow Submarine.” As opposed to: I loved the song “Yellow Submarine”.)
Colons and semicolons are not. Example:
I love the song “Yellow Submarine”; my brother, however, does not. BUT: I love the song “Yellow Submarine.” My brother, however, does not.
The same goes for colons. Take, for example, the first line of “To a Skylark”: “Hail to thee, blithe spirit!” (Example from CMOS)
The best way to learn this rule is just to practice it, but the main thing to remember is that colons and semicolons will always go outside the quotation mark. Periods and commas will go inside. Question marks and exclamation points will go inside or outside depending on whether or not those marks are part of the quotation or the sentence as a whole.
NOTE: You will also notice differences between styles, such as Chicago being different from MLA, which differs from APA, etc. American English also differs from British English, so there’s that mess to consider as well (British English calls for periods and commas on the outside of quotation marks). The point is to make sure you know which style guide you’re following in order to get this rule correct for your specific work. And, as always, the point is that even the tiniest punctuation marks are important to presenting a clean, polished, professional draft.
For more on this topic, see: