Direct quotations—the actual words someone said or wrote—are enclosed in quotation marks (also called inverted commas). In North America quotation marks are usually double (“); in other English-speaking countries, single (‘). (If there’s a quotation within a quotation, the single and double marks alternate):
Ms. Beebs said, “Jumbo’s exact words were, ‘I sprained my trunk.’ “
Direct quotations often come with what are called reporting clauses like she said or he replied. These can come at the beginning, the middle, or the end of the quoted material. The punctuation is different in each case. I’ll be illustrating North American conventions here.
Reporting Clause at the Beginning of the Sentence
If the reporting clause comes at the beginning of a sentence, a comma comes after the clause and before the first quotation mark. Also, the first word of the quoted material is capitalized:
Fang whined, “What good is venom pie without whipped cream?”
Ms Penny replied, “The cream reacts with the venom, and you get triple cholesterol.”
Miss Hiss broke in, “Oh, Fangie, just dribble on a little yoghurt!”
As these examples show, the end-of-sentence punctuation—period, question mark, or exclamation mark—ordinarily comes before the second quotation mark. But If a question or an exclamation contains a direct quotation, the punctuation mark follows the second quotation mark.
Did the demon professor actually say, “I insist on having an exam every week”? [The quotation is contained within the question; in other words, the question mark belongs to the entire question sentence, not to the enclosed quotation.]
In North America, this placement applies only to questions and exclamations. Periods and commas always come before the second quotation mark.
Reporting Clause at the End of the Quotation
“I would like to take you back to my sector of the universe,” said the demon, who was already levitating. “We’ll have a great time,” he added.
“May I bring Fang with me?” I asked.
“No way!” he shouted.
If, as in both sentences of the first example, the quoted material would ordinarily end in a period (that is, if it’s a statement sentence), we place a comma before the quotation mark. The period then comes at the end of the sentence. But if the quotation is a question or exclamation, as in the second and third examples, place the appropriate mark before the quotation mark.
Reporting Clause in the Middle of a Quotation
Often, a reporting clause interrupts a quotation. In that case, there are two considerations: The punctuation before the reporting clause is the same as when the reporting clause comes at the end of the quotation: a comma immediately followed by a quotation mark: (,”).The punctuation at the end of the sentence is the same as when the reporting clause comes before the quotation. Read the following four examples to verify these points, and I’ll come back to what goes on between the reporting clause and the second part of the quotation:
“If he giggles,” I said, “let him go.”
“I want you,” responded the demon, “to make him giggle.”
“Give me a break,” I said; “tickling is a federal offence.”
“Will you defy me?” he replied. “Take this feather and do as I say!”
In the first two examples, a comma follows the reporting clause because the reporting clause breaks into the sentence structure of the quoted material. For the same reason, the continuation of the quotation after the reporting clause begins with a small letter: that is, the continuation is part of the clause that is interrupted by the reporting clause:
“If he giggles, let him go.”
“I want you to make him giggle.”
In the second two examples, however, a semicolon or question mark follows the reporting clause because the first part of the quotation is an independent clause. The semicolon or period is the punctuation that would have been used if the reporting clause had not been there:
“Give me a break; tickling is a federal offence.”
“Will you defy me? Take this feather and do as I say!”
Reporting Clauses: Summary
In North American usage, periods and commas always precede quotation marks:
“Every morning I awaken him with marine animals.”
“We feel,” the commissioner noted, “that electric eels are excessively stimulating.”
Colons and semicolons always follow quotation marks:
These are the famous “eel and cobra steps”: squiggle, slither, squirm, and writhe.
He said, “Piranhas suck”; I replied, “Rather, they nibble.”
Question marks and exclamation marks can come either before or after quotation marks, depending on three situations:
When a question is part of a statement sentence and comes at the end of a sentence, the question mark precedes the quotation mark:
He asked Miss Hiss, “Do you always slap him with sardines?”
When the sentence as a whole is a question, but the quotation itself is a statement, the question mark follows the quotation marks:
Who said, “Fang adores being hit with fish”?
When both the sentence and the quotation are questions (this happens rarely), the question mark precedes the quotation mark:
Do you know the words to “Who Put the Piranha in Mrs. Murphy’s Long Johns?”