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When do Commas or Periods Go Inside Quotation Marks and When do They Go Outside?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 23, 2024
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When using quotation marks, people are faced with several choices as to how to place punctuation like commas and periods. If you’re writing with British standards, commas, periods, question marks and others fall naturally. Some are included within the quotation marks, if it makes sense, and other are outside of it. The standard rule in American punctuation is that periods go inside quotation marks, as do most commas, even if the punctuation is not part of the quote.

American English is known for its exceptions to rules, and there is one type of incidence where it would not be the case that periods go inside quotation marks. If you place quotation marks around a letter or number, usually the period or comma falls outside the quotes. Consider the following example:

I got three “Bs” and an “A”.

This is the only incidence that ignores the fact that most periods go inside quotation marks. The letter in quotes stands alone.

In most other incidences, though, you’ll find periods go inside and so do commas. Even if you’re quoting a couple of words from a text, commas, without being part of the text are included in the quotes:

The poet refers to the graveyard as “dismal,” “heartbreaking,” “sleeping,” and “fat.”

Note the commas, though they probably are not part of the original quote. In British English, these would fall outside the quotes.

While you can stand by the rule that most periods and commas go inside the quotation marks if you’re writing in American English, there are different rules for other types of punctuation. Question marks produce their own questions. A question mark can reside outside quotation marks if it is not part of the quote in a sentence that is in the form of a question:

Did the poet say that humans are “lost forever”?

Moreover, unless you are quoting something that contains a semi-colon, this too will fall outside quotation marks.

The man said, “Stay away”; I backed away carefully.

Don’t forget that, when you’re using longer quotes in the block-indentation style of quoting, you don’t use quotation marks at all. If you quote four or more lines of text, tab in ten spaces for the whole quote and do not use quotation marks. Moreover, if you’re double spacing most of your essay, you may need to single space block-indented quotes. Check with your teacher to see which method he or she prefers.

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Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Language & Humanities contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By anon1005184 — On Jul 06, 2021

I'm curious why your example:

The poet refers to the graveyard as “dismal,” “heartbreaking,” “sleeping,” and “fat.” wouldn't be simplified:

The poet refers to the graveyard as “dismal, heartbreaking, sleeping and fat.”

By jessiwan — On Mar 08, 2021

I have this following sentence that I struggle with a lot:

So, if I said, "how do you like cyber-stalking me", would you giggle like a school girl?

I am not sure if the comma should go inside or outside the quotation mark. In fact, I am not even sure if it should be a comma or a question mark. The stuff inside the quotation marks is a question, so that's why I kind of think I need a question mark. However, I kind of think a comma would work too, due to the nature of the sentence.

Can someone tell me whether I should have used a question mark or comma after the word "me"?

By anon205510 — On Aug 12, 2011

I'm not sure what you used for a source for this posting. The Merriam Webster Concise Guide Handbook for Writers says that periods and commas, even when used with single letters, go inside quotes. Here is an example from page 45:

The letter "m" is wider than the letter "i."

By anon147577 — On Jan 29, 2011

The semantics for American placement of punctuation is so incredibly irritating. I'm an American, but I'm also a theoretical computer scientist, so I am keenly in tune with grammatical structure of languages.

While I understand that natural languages have many flexibilities that abstract languages do not, I still find some elements frustrating. When the punctuation is not semantically associated with the quoted text, there is no good reason for it to be placed inside.

The usage is completely "screwed." <- Not semantically included.

He said, "The usage is completely strange." <- Semantically included.

By amypollick — On Dec 09, 2010

@anon133169: How about an answer from a native Southerner who is also an English major and a grammar nut?

You would treat the apostrophe for these words as you would the apostrophe that makes a contraction, or a possessive plural. In essence, it becomes *part* of the word.

So, for instance, if the sentence read, "It's not his help I'm needin'," as you can see, the comma goes after the apostrophe, but inside the quotes. It looks odd, I'll grant you, but that's how it should be treated. Same premise as "That happened at the Rogers'."

Hope this helps clear up the issue! Good luck with the editing. I've done it, believe me.

By anon133169 — On Dec 09, 2010

Due respect to win199, so far I've failed to locate an online source that speaks to my problem. I've been asked to edit a manuscript for a novel that contains a great deal of Southern slang, with dozens (it feels like thousands) of character dialog sentences ending in words such as "needin'" (short for "needing"), "helpin'" ("helping"), and so forth.

Here's my question: Do periods and commas go before or after the apostrophe, as in "needin'," or "needin.'"? Thanks in advance for any "helpin'" you can provide.

By anon132303 — On Dec 06, 2010

I don't like to just contradict what people say, but in the U.S., it's a grammar rule that periods and commas always go inside, regardless of whether it's one letter or not.

By anon120664 — On Oct 21, 2010

Regarding anon's post: Unfortunately, the issue of "to split or to not split" infinitives is something that has become quite skewed in the English language. This is technically a Latin rule, which we try to borrow, but its meaning is much clearer in the Latin (and consequently in all Romantic languages) -- especially considering English is a Germanic language. So I wouldn't worry too much about it.

By anon116328 — On Oct 06, 2010

All those rules! No wonder even a previous poster, who ironically cautioned against semi-colon overuse, split not one but two infinitives: "to not over use" and "to also utilize."

By turtlez — On Jul 24, 2010

@win199 - The use of quotation marks is generally limited to dialogue or speech, but many people tend to use them a lot more than they should. It's important to remember that even though you are using quotes to not over use them and to also utilize them in the proper aspect. So in this case, general resources can be very helpful - until you run into two sites that disagree on the outcome.

By win199 — On Jul 24, 2010

Oh, the English language - how I hate you. Using a period inside or outside quotation marks trips people up to the point of failure sometimes. The reality, however, is that most people can easily look up the answer to their questions about grammar online.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Language & Humanities contributor,...
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