Thompson Rivers University

Punctuating Your Quotes

  Posted on: May 29, 2015

Many writers get confused about where to put the punctuation at the end of a quote. Does the period/comma come before the closing quotation mark or after it? For example, if I want to quote part of the sentence, “One plus three does not equal five, but it does equal four,” I can punctuate the following sentence in one of two different ways:

  1. J. Oker explains that “one plus three does not equal five.”
  2. J. Oker explains that “one plus three does not equal five”.

Do you see how the period at the end of the quote appears inside the quotation mark in the first example and outside of it in the second example? The former is often considered the American style while the latter is often called the British style. Both these styles of punctuating quotes have their supporters. But which style should you choose? The answer to that question will likely hinge on the style guide you are following since style guides typically identify a preference.

The American Style

MLA, APA, and Chicago all prefer the first (American) style of punctuating the end of quotation. The MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers (7th ed., 2009) explains, “By convention, commas and periods that directly follow quotations go inside the closing quotation marks…. All other punctuation marks—such as semicolons, colons, question marks, and exclamation points—go outside a closing quotation mark, except when they are part of the quoted material” (p. 103). In summary, think of it like this:

The British Style

In contrast, CSE (Council of Science Editors) prefers the second (British) style of punctuating the end of a quotation. Simply put, if the punctuation is a part of the quote, put it inside the quotation mark; if it is not a part of the quote, put it outside. This rule applies to all punctuation marks equally: periods, commas, semicolons, colons, question marks, and explanation points. Thus, because the above quote does not have a period after “five,” it should be placed outside the quotation mark instead of inside it. CSE, therefore, would use the second example which follows these rules:

So, what style should you use? In part, it might depend on the institution you are attending, but you should start by checking with your instructors and of course the appropriate style guide. The rules are fairly simple, but you need to know which set of rules to use first. Remember that you can also book an appointment with a Writing Centre tutor who would be happy to help you sort out your punctuation!