Commas and Periods
In America, commas and periods always go inside the quotation marks.
“I think so,” she said.
The Chicago Manual of Style says that “periods and commas precede closing quotation marks.”
Note that in British English, the punctuation marks only go inside of the quotation marks if the punctuation is part of the quoted material, although many writers make an exception for periods. One other exception is dialogue, where authors will always put commas inside the quotation marks.
American: Yesterday I read the short story “Why Boys Lie.”
British: Yesterday I read the short story ‘Why Boys Lie’.
Question Marks, Exclamation Points, and Em Dashes
Question marks, exclamation points, and em dashes can go inside or outside the quotation mark, depending on whether they’re part of the quote or not. This is true of dialogue, quoted material, or scare quotes. As a reminder, scare quotes are used to show when a phrase is being used in an ironic or nonstandard way—or perhaps it’s not a phrase the narrator or viewpoint character would normally use.
On this first example, the question mark goes outside of single quotation mark because it is not part of Sally’s original comment, but it goes inside the double quotation marks because it is part of John’s comment (unless Sally was actually asking a question when she said “I hate chocolate.”). For more about single versus double quotes, read our blog post Single and Double Quotes in Text and Dialogue.
Right: John paused. “Did Sally just say ‘I hate chocolate’?”
Wrong: John paused. “Did Sally just say ‘I hate chocolate?'”
In the example below, the exclamation point goes outside the double quotes because “Why Boys Lie” is a short story in an anthology, and the exclamation point is not a part of the title.
Right: I love “Why Boys Lie”!
Wrong: I love “Why Boys Lie!”
If the putting the exclamation point outside the quotation mark looks strange to you, try ending the sentence differently by either using a period or adding words.
I love “Why Boys Lie” better than any other short story!
I love “Why Boys Lie.”
In the scare quote example below, the question mark goes outside the double quotes because it is not a part of the phrase “hot mama.” (However, note that the period would go inside.) This would be the same for an ending quote used for emphasis.
Right: Maybe he thinks she’s a “hot mama”?
Wrong: Maybe he thinks she’s a “hot mama?”
However, if I were writing this sentence, I’d throw out the quotations altogether unless it’s really important to the scene and the author’s been using scare quotes for the phrase all along. Scare quotes don’t add anything in this isolated sentence except to tell us this kind of language isn’t really the narrator’s usual way of speaking (or perhaps he’s trying to use it as emphasis and it’s not really a scare quote at all). Remember, less is often better. Go with your gut on this, and unless quotes are absolutely needed, considering omitting them.
Finally, em dashes only go inside quotation marks for dialogue, to show that the speaker is abruptly cut off.
Right: “I thought you said—”
“No, no, that’s not what I meant.”
Wrong: “I thought you said”—
“No, no, that’s not what I meant.”
However, if you have dialogue interrupted with a dialogue beat, you can show that with the em dashes outside the quotation in pairs. Read more about dialogue beats in our previous posts 8 Tips for Punctuating Dialogue and em dashes in Correct Em-Dash Formation for Ebooks.
Right: “You think”—he swallowed hard—”she did that?”
Wrong: “You think—” he swallowed hard “—she did that?”
Semicolons and Colons
Semicolons and colons always go outside the quotation marks.
Right: Yesterday I read the short story “Why Boys Lie”; it was a fantastic read.
Wrong: Yesterday I read the short story “Why Boys Lie;” it was a fantastic read.
Right: She quoted her favorite line from the short story “Why Boys Lie”: “Well, if they can’t tell girls the truth, why not come up with something better?”
Wrong: She quoted her favorite line from the short story “Why Boys Lie:” “Well, if they can’t tell girls the truth, why not come up with something better?”
Right: She’s definitely a “hot mama”; just look at that crazy hair!
Wrong: She’s definitely a “hot mama;” just look at that crazy hair!
Colons and semicolons can quickly become annoying to readers, especially in fiction, and often look pretentious, so use them sparingly. Also avoid using them with dialogue, since they can come across as stiff and formal. Again, if having the colon or semicolon just outside the quotes looks wrong to you, you can always change the punctuation or add more words after the quote.