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.
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?
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. His website is www.wilbers.com.