In and out of quotes and parentheses

Lyra asked where you put punctuation around quotes and parentheses. I’m delighted to tell you. Wait: Are you British or writing for a British audience? If so, go read The Guardian, because this post will be useless to you. The rest of us yobs can read on. (No, I don’t know whether yobs is a real word; carry on.)

Here are the rules, comrades.

1. Put a period inside the parentheses if and only if there is a complete sentence within the parentheses; otherwise, the period goes outside the parens (as they are called in the publishing world, because we are too lazy to spell out parentheses). See what I just did there? (Did you even notice?)

2. Put all punctuation that is part of what the person is saying inside the quotes when you write in dialogue. “Oh my god!” she said. “I’m a lowly science copyeditor. I forgot about dialogue!”

“You let me deal with dialogue, little lady,” said the handsome stranger to the copyeditor.

“Fuck off,” said the copyeditor. “Dealing with punctuation is my job. I think I can handle a little fiction now and then.”

2a. However, the dialogue still has to make grammatical sense within the sentence (unless you’re all experimental, in which case you should still listen to me, because you have to know the rules in order to break them), so add the commas in the pauses between the character’s speech and the narrative. That sounds complicated but see example above: “‘Fuck off,’ said the copyeditor.”

2b. When you’re quoting within a quote, and again, you aren’t British, you use single quotes to signify the quoted material inside the quote.

3. If you are quoting someone else in a non-dialogue setting, many of the same rules apply. However, you are less likely to have terminal punctuation (period, exclamation point, question mark) inside the quotes. If you need a comma after the quote, it is always OK to add it inside the quotes, even if it is not part of the quoted material. A period can go inside the quotes. However if you’re inserting a semi colon it goes outside the quotes. I can’t really tell you why. (Pauses to look it up. Ha! Even Chicago admits that it doesn’t make a ton of sense.)

Why did she shout “Fire!” when there was no fire?

When you say,” I don’t think you used the word ‘appall’ correctly,” you’d best smile and be prepared to back yourself up.

The dentist said “this will only hurt a little”; I will never listen to her again.

Does that answer all your questions?

3a. addendum. A question mark goes outside the quote if it is not part of the quotation. Did she really yell “death to all copyeditors”? Or, really, I do this daily and it goes something like: OK to change “sweethearts of the rodoe” to “sweethearts of the rodeo”?

19 responses to “In and out of quotes and parentheses

  1. Thank you!
    Could the second to last paragraph have been a colon since they are complete sentences?
    Also if a quote, let’s say first person narrative, ends with a complete sentence within parentheses, is it…”Blah blah (blah blah.)” Or is there another period somewhere?
    Thanks, Indy!

    • The dentist quote? Yes, I just don’t use colons very often.

      You need more punctuation. “I talk a lot, don’t you think I talk a lot (My mom says I talk a lot.)?” But you see it is a little messy. Could be my example. 🙂 It should be “Blah blah (Blah blah blah.).”

      • In something new I’m working on, I’ve come up against that punctuation more than once, and that’s exactly it: it seems terribly messy. I was convinced it was wrong, but I would lose the voice to rework the sentence. I can’t believe thst’s right. It looks so distracting. Thanks again, Indy!

  2. 1. Yob is a real word.
    2. No readers of your blog are likely to be yobs.
    3.What do the British do?
    4. I think you should have a sidebar with all of your very helpful grammatical/punctuation points.

    • 1. What does yob mean? (There’s an off-chance I got it from a foul-mouthed puppet from an old sci-fi show.)
      3. I have no idea, but the rules are different. I think, in general, the Brits put punctuation outside the quotes and use single quotes when we would use double quotes and vice versa.
      4. Excellent idea, thanks!

      • Yob is a distinctly a Commonwealth term. The Australians use it (more than perhaps the NZers, and possibly less than the Brits). According to one not-to-be-named source, a Yob is “a slang term for an uncouth or thuggish working-class person” (unamed source, 2014). It is possibly the backwards reading of the word “boy.”

        Where’d you lean that, Indy?

  3. I’m starting to like the Cormac McCarthy version of things better and better.

    A few years ago at an AWP panel, it was interesting to hear some memoirists slam the use of ANY quotation marks for speech. One went so far as to say that using quotes (which is intended only for EXACT language) in your memoir can only be seen as as lying. Yowza!! Thankfully he was the only one with that much venom about it, but I do understand his point.

    That said, I’m quoting quoting quoting!

    • There’s usually a disclaimer in the beginning about reconstructing language and the author’s faulty memory and blah and blah. I’m curious who the memoirist is. It’s a bit hard line for me!

      And, you’re not quoting, you’re paraphrasing.

      • The memoirist was a man, and someone I’d never heard of.

        It’s funny. In Mary Karr’s first memoir, she uses quotation marks. In her last memoir, zero quotation marks.

  4. but, but, but . . .
    I don’t think you have to know the rules in order to break them. In fact, I think even the most scrupulous grammar-loving writer (*shakes his head is dismay*) probably breaks dozens of so-called grammar rules all the time because they are so obscure and little needed. Blithely breaking a “rule” he doesn’t even know because the writing seems right and good that way.
    I honestly think a writer can absorb all of the grammar he/she needs merely from reading decent writing (whether it’s grammatical or not), not ever knowing the technical term or rule for why/how the words line up or the punctuation falls into place. The point, after all, is communication, not devotion to rules.
    But I’m an iconoclastic curmudgeon.

    • OK, OK, I confess, I threw the “you need to know the rules in order to break them” without much thought. And because I came to writing through poetry, and I do think you need to know something about poetry before you start spattering words over the page with un-thought-out line breaks.

      I absolutely believe that you don’t need to know what things are called to use them correctly, especially in creative writing. I don’t think creative writers need to know all the punctuation/grammar rules. If they did, I wouldn’t have a job. I do think you need to know advanced sentence diagramming if you are a copyeditor, because it helps you figure out how to use words. But that’s professional level and (can I admit this here?) I don’t know advanced parts of speech. True.

      You’ll find among copyeditors a range from slavish devotion to rules to a measured balance of considering reader needs, writer needs, and the rules. Believe it or not, I’m pretty far toward the latter end of that spectrum.

      And I like that you keep me honest, Paul Iconoclastic Curmudgeon (hereafter PIC).

  5. Bookmarking this!!

    I’ve been sidestepping the issue of punctuation when quoting within dialogue by using italics. But now i know the rules! Huzzah!

    (Write up that copyeditor/handsome stranger story, would you? There’s a dearth of those.) (How’d I do?)

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