I’ll freely admit it. I mess this up all the time. At 51 years old, the lessons I learned about grammar and punctuation in my youth are distant memories, and like most people, I don’t really pay close attention to punctuation details when I’m reading. My brain just absorbs the words in a flow instead.
I seem to remember my English teacher saying something about putting questions marks and exclamation points inside of the quotes, however I don’t always see that happening, so… what’s the deal?
Like most things in the English language, the answer to this question is… it depends. It depends on where you live (for example, Britain does things differently than the United States), who you ask and sometimes even who you are writing for. However, for most people living in the USA and writing in a common, daily style, there are some basic guidelines that we can follow that should keep most people happy.
Here’s the basic rule. If the sentence within the quotes is a question, then the question mark goes inside the quotes as well.
“Shall we meet for lunch at ten?” Ted asked Mary.
If the entire sentence is a question however, then put the question mark at the end of the sentence instead.
Did he say, “We’re meeting for lunch at ten”?
Fairly simple, yes? But, what happens when both the quote and the sentence are questions? Do we use two question marks?
Did he ask, “Shall we meet for lunch at ten?”?
No. It is never correct to use two question marks in that fashion. If the sentence and the quote are both questions, then the quote “wins” and the question mark goes inside the quotes.
Did he ask, “Shall we meet for lunch at ten?”
Clear as mud, right? :) Let’s take it one step further. In the previous example, we put the question mark within the quotes when both the sentence and the quote were questions, however, that’s in a typical sentence structure where the quote is also at the end of the sentence. What if that’s not the case?
Is “Shall we meet at lunch?” what John asked us earlier?
To be perfectly honest with you, I simply could not find an existing rule for such a case, so… I made my own. Yay! Maybe I’ll be quoted by an English teacher one day. In any event, what makes the most sense to me is to follow the preceding standards and rules and simply make sense of them the best we can. If that’s the case, then we use question marks both within the quotes, and at the end of the sentence.
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