Punctuation and Quotation Disambiguation

When you’re pouring an amazing story out of your head, heart, and soul, it can be easy to get tripped up on the details. One of the most frequent mistakes I see is misused or missing punctuation somewhere in the vicinity of quotation marks. The quotation mark is important to tell the reader that someone is speaking, but other punctuation is equally important in telling us how.

To get the easiest bit out of the way first, let’s get one thing straight: In the United States, we put our periods and commas inside quotation marks. There are arguments to be made for and against this practice, but nonetheless, that’s how we do things. Now that we’ve established that, let’s look at the particulars.

Much of the time, you’ll simply use a comma at the end of a quote, like this:

“I don’t believe you,” the detective growled.


The comma replaces the period that would be there if it was an independent statement because the text following the quote is an attribution and description of the quote, rather than a fully separate statement. That’s why it’s important to know when to use a comma or a period: the choice can completely change the meaning of your words. With a comma, it’s clear that the detective is the one speaking, and he says it in an aggressive tone. If we change it to a period:

“I don’t believe you.” The detective growled.

The text following becomes an independent statement. Though the detective is the implied speaker, there is some ambiguity. Furthermore, his growl is no longer a description of how he speaks, but a separate action. This simple punctuation swap takes us from a rough-around-the-edges detective doing his job to a very strange detective indeed, who sometimes growls like an animal after simple statements.

Of course, there are times when a period within quotation marks is appropriate. If the speaker is defined clearly enough through context, and the text following is a continuation of narration, not more information about the quotation, a period would be the correct choice. For example:

“I don’t believe you.” The detective turned his attention back to the stack of files on his desk.

But because English is an eccentric jumble of a language (I say this with love, you understand), there are, of course, exceptions to this rule. Exclamation points and question marks will replace the comma or period that would otherwise follow the end of a quote, inside the quotation marks, even when the following text describes the quote or attributes it to a speaker. That’s because there’s really nowhere else to put these punctuation marks that would make sense. At the end of the sentence, after the following text, can change the meaning of the writing entirely, making the description of who spoke a question or exclamation itself, rather than simply stating a person’s remarks. Check out these examples to see what I mean:

“I don’t believe you!” the detective roared.

That exclamation point simply has nowhere else to go. Put it after “roared” and the whole narration suddenly becomes a yell. Remove it entirely, and the point that the detective is exclaiming loudly is undermined by a chill little comma sitting where a dramatic exclamation point should be. Still, if your intent is to make the following text an independent narration (a shouted statement followed by a roaring detective), don’t forget to capitalize and treat it as a full sentence.

The same reasoning applies to question marks:

“How am I supposed to believe that?” he asked, incredulous.

Move that question mark to follow “incredulous” and it seems like the narrator is either unsure or has a Valley Girl habit of up-talking at the end of sentences, both of which are only rarely the desired effect.

But because that’s not confusing enough, there are times when punctuation (other than periods and commas) should go outside the quotation marks. Namely, if the punctuation is not a part of the original quotation. For example:

Did he really say “I don’t believe you”?


He said “I don’t believe you”; I could see the questioning in his eyes, though.

As I’ve said: it’s a confusing language sometimes. But practice these instances enough and you’ll be quoting without worry in no time.

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Jacki_headshot2Jacki has been editing professionally since completing her study of the English language at Virginia Commonwealth University in 2012. She has been an Inkwell Book Co. editor since 2013. From memoirs to fiction to fantasy, she can’t resist a good story, and can usually be found at her rural Virginia home with her nose in a book and a cat in her lap.