Punctuation rules are simple and straightforward — right?

Imagine the following conversation between a Terrific Boss and a Hapless Employee.

TB: Why do you keep making so many punctuation errors? The rules are simple and straightforward.

HE: Really? Where can I find the basic rules for punctuation?

TB: Just Google "Wilbers punctuation."

HE: OK, I will, but how about if we talk about the rules for quotation marks? For example, do closing quotation marks go before or after commas and periods?

TB: In American English (unlike British English), commas and periods go before, not after, closing quotation marks.

HE: Got it. So when should I use single quotation marks?

TB: Again, in American English, never.

HE: Never?

TB: Never. Except for quotations within quotations.

HE: Oh, so you mean like this: "Did she ask, 'Like this?'?"

TB: Precisely. And when you have a signal phrase (or a phrase of attribution) as you do in "Did she ask, 'Like this?'?" the first letter in the quoted material is uppercase.

HE: So it should be "Did she ask, 'Like this?'?" not "Did she ask, 'like this?'?"

TB: Exactly. Also, you were correct not to insert a comma after your second question mark. When both a question mark and a comma are called for, the comma is omitted.

HE: I see. So the comma is omitted when both a question mark and a comma are called for, as in "She asked, 'Like this?' not 'Like that?' " not "She asked, 'Like this?*,' not 'Like that?' "?

TB: That's right. Also, you correctly used single quotation marks within double quotation marks. If you had embedded a second quote within the first quote, you would have marked the embedded quote with double quotation marks.

HE: Oh, boy. So each time you go down a level of embedded quotes, you alternate between single and double quotation marks?

TB: Correct.

HE: And when do you stop alternating?

TB: Never. You keep going.

HE: How far?

TB: Forever. To infinity.

HE: Wow, that's a long way. So if I asked you, "Do you mean to say, 'You said, "She asked, 'Like this?' not 'Like that?' " ' is correct?" you would say, "Yes"?

TB: Absolutely. And note that because you asked the question, the final question mark goes outside, not inside, the final closing quotation mark.

HE: Of course. That's logical.

TB: Every punctuation rule is logical. There are no exceptions.

HE: None?

TB: None.

HE: Ever?

TB: Ever. And people who know the rules, as I do never make punctuation errors

HE: I appreciate your explaining the rules for quotation marks to me, however, I noticed you omitted the closing comma after your aside, as well as the period at the end of your sentence.

TB: Oh, yeah? Well, what about your 'comma splice?' You need to Google "Wilbers comma splices."

HE: OK, I will, but let's talk more about when to use single quotation marks and when to place a question mark after, not before, a closing quotation mark. I think you blew it.

Stephen Wilbers offers training seminars in effective business writing. E-mail him at wilbe004@umn.edu. His website is www.wilbers.com.