Quotation Mark and Ending Punctuation Confusionby Weston Kincade on 12/04/13
Many writers are often confused by something that should be simple, but is still written differently throughout the world—the order of closing punctuation when a line of dialogue or sentence ends with quotation marks.
Example 1 - Ending Punctuation Standard
Normally, everyone agrees that the punctuation applying to the sentence should always go inside the closing quotation marks. This can get a little convoluted when dialogue ends with previously quoted material, titles of poems, and other items which call for their own quotation marks within the sentence.
Trevor said, “I can’t believe he called you a devil.”
“What do you mean, ‘a devil’?”
The couple lines of dialogue above are standard and shouldn’t be confusing. The quoted words “a devil” properly use single quotation marks inside speech, and the question mark follows the quoted closing quotation mark but is inside the quotation marks encapsulating the entire sentence. However, confusion can stem from this structure when the sentence no longer calls for a semicolon, question mark, or exclamation point.
Example 2 - Ending Punctuation Confusion
If the end punctuation needed is either a comma or period, there are two different standards depending on where you are located and to whom you are shopping the manuscript.
US publishers and agents use the US standard, which says commas and periods ending the sentence go inside all closing quotation marks.
Consider this example continuing from the previous dialogue:
“How can you ask that? As in ‘Satan,’” Trevor repeated, “the big, bad kahuna and those folks down south where it’s a tad hotter than roasting.”
You will notice in example 2 above that the US standard is different from example 1, where the question mark came after the single closing quotation mark.
Worldwide Standard (Except in the US)
The rest of the world orders punctuation and quotation marks more logically, applying all forms of end punctuation after the closing quotation marks that apply to individual words within the sentence, but inside the closing double quotation marks encapsulating the entire sentence. This is because ending punctuation for a sentence applies to the entire sentence.
Using the worldwide standard, the previous example would look like this:
“How can you ask that? As in ‘Satan’,” Trevor repeated, “the big, bad kahuna and those folks down south where it’s a tad hotter than roasting.”
As I said, which format you use depends on where the publisher or agent is in the world and what audience you are appealing to.
Ending Punctuation Confusion - Added Tip
Another common problem I have encountered is when authors choose to use single or double quotes for emphasis. This formatting decision can make the above problem that much more prevalent. A preference in the publishing industry is to use italics for emphasis instead of quotation marks, and I recommend writers do the same.
I hope these editing recommendations help in your future writing ventures.