Q&A: Quotes and punctuation – evil or not?

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Each week, we chat about the quirks & anomalies of the “English” language. Like how you’re now thinking we’re being ironic because we put quote marks around English…

Q: Hi AWC – I’d like to ask you about quotation marks.
A: What’s your question?
Q: Actually, just tell me everything about them please.
A: Haha, okay we’ll try.
Q: First, should I use ‘single’ or “double” quotes?
A: It kind of depends. Americans typically prefer doubles for everything. Here in Australia, it’s more of a 50/50 thing – with newspapers and magazines usually preferring doubles (although singles in headlines), while novels and government publications often opt for singles. Just whichever one you choose, be consistent and stick with it!
Q: What if you have a quote within a quote?
A: If you use double quotes, embed the single ones inside, and vice versa.
Q: Do commas and full stops go inside the end of the quote marks or outside?
A: Okay, this is one that often stumps people. It can get confusing because we do it one way and another country does the other. Can you guess which country that would be?
Q: Iceland?
A: Seriously?
Q: Burkina Faso?
A: Really? That’s your second guess?
Q: Kyrgyzstan?
A: Okay, we’ll just tell you. It’s USA of course – you know, the country that loves changing the rules.
Q: Wait – isn’t that Australia?
A: No, that’s the country that loves changing the rulers.
Q: Oh yes, my mistake. Please continue.
A: So in North America, they also love keeping their rules simple. So commas and full stops universally go INSIDE the quotation marks – full quotes, part quotes, everything. For example, they’d say to “construct sentences like this.” Note the full stop inside the final quotation mark.
Q: Was there any other reason for doing this?
A: Actually yes. Back in the early days of printing presses, everyone tried to avoid having full stops and commas dangling on the end as they were the most fragile pieces of lead and might break. The quotation marks were chunkier so sat on the outside.
Q: Okay, so what do WE do?
A: Places such as Britain and Australia thought it was better to attach the punctuation to the context.
Q: Definitely going to need to see some examples.
A: Haha, sure. “This is a complete sentence inside quotes.” Note the full stop is inside – same as America. “This is another example, where the sentence continues after the end of the quote,” she said. Notice that the comma is still inside.
Q: Okay, yep. So everyone’s the same so far.
A: However, when you use just part of a quote – a snippet that doesn’t begin with a capital – we say that the punctuation belongs to the entire sentence itself.
Q: Examples?
A: Here in Australia, we say to “construct sentences like this”. Note the full stop outside the quotes (unlike America). And here is another good example of a quote “being just a small part of the sentence”, to show you the comma outside also.
Q: Ah, okay. So what about other punctuation like question marks or exclamation points?
A: Everyone worldwide agrees that they go where they belong. For example, “Who’s in the Grand Final?” has the question mark inside because the quote is a question. Meanwhile, “Did anyone hear her say, ‘I know who’s going to win the Grand Final’?” has it outside as her quote was a statement. (Also note the single inside double quotes.)
Q: And if you’re quoting someone and it goes over more than one paragraph, isn’t there a weird rule there?
A: Yes, most print publications will simply begin the new paragraph with the double quotes without ending the previous paragraph with closing quote marks. It tells the reader that the quote continues. Then you only end the final paragraph with closing quotes.
Q: Clever. And finally, I asked my local builder about extending our deck by another few metres on one side and adding a Bali-themed day bed with too many cushions. What’s the deal with that?
A: Ummm, that’s a different kind of quote…


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