Sunday, July 20, 2014

Before or After?

I recently applied for work as an editor at a company and they gave me a grammar test that I had to pass before I could get hired.  When I looked at the questions, though, I knew why they were in need of an editor.  This was the question (and the answer choices):

Should the punctuation go inside or outside the quotations?
a. Inside       b. Outside

Well, this is a hell of a loaded question.  After all, there is no simple rule for anything in English grammar.  When it comes to quotations and punctuation, the same concept applies.  The gist of the rules is that if the quotation is an actual quotation - as in, somebody said something and now you're repeating it - or if the statement within the quotations is an exclamation or question, then the punctuation would go on the inside.  Otherwise, it goes on the outside.  For example:

You call yourself a "martyr?"  would be incorrect, because this is not a quotation of someone asking, simply, "martyr?".

The correct way to annotate this is:

You call yourself a "martyr"?

Now, if the sentence read:

The king addressed his subject, and asked, "You call yourself a martyr?"

In this case, the quote is an actual question, so the question mark goes inside the quotes.  But, if it read like this:

Can you believe he told me, "And you call yourself a martyr"?

In this case, the question mark goes outside the quotation marks because the quote inside them is not a question, while the statement outside them is.

Ok, so what fun is English without an exception or two?  In this case I'll give you one:

Can you believe he asked me, "You call yourself a martyr"?


Can you believe he asked me, "You call yourself a martyr?"

in this case, both of these are correct, because both the quote and the statement are questions, and the writer can use his discretion on which to use.

The issue is different when it comes to dialog, however, and the punctuation should go inside the quotations, such as in the following examples:

"I know you," he said.

"I do not care!" I shouted.

"What ever do you mean?" he asked.

Hopefully this boils the issue down so that if you ever doubted which way was correct, or if you were ever faced with a grammar test when applying for work as an editor, you could impress everyone and land that job.

As always, happy writing!