Commas and Periods with Quotation Marks

Quotation marks, with comma and period

According to The Chicago Manual of Style, commas and periods are almost always placed before a closing quotation mark, “like this,” rather than after, “like this”. This traditional style has persisted even though it’s no longer universally followed outside of the United States and isn’t entirely logical.

The other standard marks of sentence punctuation—semicolons, colons, question marks, exclamation points, and dashes—go before or after a closing quotation mark depending on whether they belong with the quoted matter or with the surrounding text (see CMOS 6.9 and 6.10).

Why are commas and periods exempt from this logic?

To learn more, let’s examine the origins of Chicago’s rule—and how it took shape in the face of an emerging “British style” across the Atlantic.

Chicago v. Oxford

If you examine works published in English before 1905, you will find a near-universal placement of commas and periods before a closing quotation mark, whether single or double. This was a matter of custom, but that custom was about to change.

As I’ve suggested elsewhere, Horace Hart’s Rules for Compositors and Readers (published by Oxford University Press and available today as New Hart’s Rules) is to British publishers as The Chicago Manual of Style is to publishers in the United States. Each got its start in the 1890s as the house style guide for a major university press. And each was made available to the public for the first time a little more than a decade after that—1904 for Hart’s Rules, 1906 for Chicago.

Until 1905, Oxford University Press and the University of Chicago Press handled quotation marks in mostly the same way, with one significant difference: Oxford used single quotation marks, reserving double quotation marks for quotes within quotes; Chicago took the opposite approach.

This ‘single’/“double” distinction continues to be observed today.* The placement of commas and periods, however, was in flux.

“According to the Sense”: Hart’s Rules, 1904

In 1904, when Hart’s Rules was first offered for sale to the public, it went through four editions. The last of these, published in July 1904 (as the 18th ed., or 4th for publication), suggested one rule for commas and periods while following another:

Quotation Marks.—Single ‘quotes’ to be used for the first quotation; then double for a quotation within a quotation. . . . All marks of punctuation used with words in inverted commas, or with words within parentheses, must be placed according to the sense. (p. 36)

Right, except for one crucial detail. Commas and periods in that edition of Hart’s Rules weren’t at all placed according to the sense, as a look through its text will show. In the following facsimile from the eighteenth edition, of a passage warning against the misuse of Latin plural forms, note the placement of the period relative to the closing quotation mark after “Erratum” (p. 38):

Do not be guilty of the absurd mistake of printing ‘Errata’ as a heading for a single correction. When a list of errors has been dealt with, by printing cancel pages and otherwise, so that only one error remains, take care to alter the heading from ‘Errata’ to ‘Erratum.’ The same remarks apply to Addenda and Addendum, Corrigenda and Corrigendum.

Obviously, readers are not being advised to change “Errata” to “Erratum.”—literally—with a period at the end of the word. On the contrary, Hart’s Rules was simply following the typographic convention of its day, while hinting elsewhere (with the phrase “placed according to the sense”) that there might be a problem with that same convention.

This discrepancy would not survive for long. In the very next edition, published in July 1905, the phrase “according to the sense” would appear in italics (lest anyone miss it), and the text would be edited to follow its own advice (as we’ll see in the next section):

All signs of punctuation used with words in quotation marks must be placed according to the sense. If an extract ends with a point, then let that point be, as a rule, included before the closing quotation mark; but not otherwise. This is an important direction for the compositor to bear in mind. (p. 43)

The meaning of “point” here is any mark of punctuation—including commas and periods; a period in British English is also called a full point (or full stop). This is no change from the advice in the previous edition, which (as quoted above) applied to “all marks of punctuation.”

But this time, Hart would make sure that his guide was printed according to his word.

“A Bad Practice”: Hart’s Rules, 1905

I can only imagine the debates leading up to the 1905 nineteenth edition of Hart’s Rules—particularly relative to commas and periods with quotation marks. Whatever occurred, Hart was moved to add a two-page defense of the applicable rule (in the 18th ed., the advice on quotation marks had taken up all of three sentences):

When either a comma or a full point is required at the end of a quotation, the almost universal custom at the present time is for the printer to include that comma or full point within the quotation marks at the end of an extract, whether it forms part of the original extract or not. . . . There seems to be no reason for perpetuating a bad practice. So, unless the author wishes to have it otherwise, in all new works the compositor should place full points and commas according to the examples which follow:—

We need not ‘follow a multitude to do evil’.
No one should ‘follow a multitude to do evil’, as the Scripture says.
Do not ‘follow a multitude to do evil’; on the contrary, do what is right.

And proceed in the same manner with other marks of punctuation. (pp. 44–45)

The rest, as they say, is history. Or was it?

“A Rule without Exception”: Chicago, 1906

When the first edition of Chicago’s competing guide went on sale to the public—in 1906, as Manual of Style—the quotation marks were double, and the commas and periods went inside. So did semicolons, but not colons (the numbers refer to sections in the Manual):

113. Put the period inside the quotation marks. (This is a rule without exception.)

123. The colon should be placed outside the quotation marks, unless a part of the quotation.

127. The semicolon is always placed inside the quotation marks.

146. The comma is always placed inside the quotation marks.

By 1910, when the second edition of the Manual was published, Chicago’s editors had changed their minds about the semicolon, borrowing instead from the rule for colons:

140. The semicolon should be placed outside the quotation marks, unless a part of the quotation.

But why? Isn’t a semicolon just a fancy hybrid, stronger than a comma but weaker than a period?

“For Appearance’ Sake”: Chicago, 1937

The reason for Chicago’s continued exception for commas and periods alone would become evident, but not until 1937, when the tenth edition of the Manual was published:

133. The period is placed inside the quotation marks for appearance’ sake. . . .

Tennyson’s “In Memoriam.”
Put the period inside the quotation marks. (This is a rule without exception.)

The rule for periods is still “a rule without exception,” as it was in 1906—but this time the reminder is in italics, a bit of emphasis that echoes Hart’s own insistence in 1905 on the opposite principle. Just as interesting are those three words of explanation that precede the example: “for appearance’ sake.”

What does that mean?

Punctuating at the Baseline

Whereas colons and semicolons rise to the level of lowercase letters (question marks and exclamation points are even taller), commas and periods hug the baseline. Quotation marks, on the other hand, float in the ether, aligning themselves near the tops of the capital letters.

So when a comma or a period precedes a quotation mark, it tends to appear as much below the mark as to its left, particularly in the proportional typefaces used for most published works since Gutenberg and now the default in everything from text-messaging apps to word processors.

Here’s a screenshot from my computer. Thanks to the style sheets working in the background, the text approximates the well-kerned appearance of proportional fonts in modern published works:

Chicago style: This is “only a test,” you know, not “real life.” British style: This is ‘only a test’, you know, not ‘real life’.

That’s only Microsoft Word, using the default Calibri font with kerning turned on (under Font > Advanced > Character Spacing). A design professional using a program like Adobe InDesign would do even better.

But notice how the commas and the period in the example of Chicago style appear consistently right next to the words they follow (test, know, life), creating a pleasing uniformity along the baseline. In British style, placement is interrupted by the quotation marks, though the gap is smaller than it would be with double rather than single marks.

Which style do you prefer?

Fortunately, neither one is the very last word on the matter.

Fictional Dialogue, Where the Styles Converge

Of the two styles, Chicago is the easier one to apply. Neither writers nor their editors have to stop to determine in each case whether a comma or period belongs to the quoted text or to the surrounding context. That’s a real advantage in works that contain a lot of dialogue.

Take these two sentences, for example:

This is a test, so pay attention.
Punctuation is the key to everything.

Now turn them into dialogue:

Chicago style:
“This is a test,” he said, “so pay attention.”
“Punctuation,” I answered, “is the key to everything.”

British style, standard:
‘This is a test,’ he said, ‘so pay attention.’
‘Punctuation’, I answered, ‘is the key to everything.’

British style, fiction:
‘This is a test,’ he said, ‘so pay attention.’
‘Punctuation,’ I answered, ‘is the key to everything.’

Did you pass the test?

You get some credit for noticing the single versus double quotation marks. But you get full credit if you noticed that in the second line of the “standard” British-style example, the first comma (the one after the word “Punctuation”) follows the closing quotation mark.

If you didn’t notice this right away, don’t worry. It may be true that the comma in the second sentence doesn’t belong to the quoted dialogue—it has been added only to facilitate the interruption by the narrator, as you can tell by looking at the original sentence—but who cares?

No one does, apparently.

So British style makes an exception for fictional dialogue, and that’s a good thing. No editor wants to wade through the thousands of lines of dialogue typical of a conventionally written novel to figure out in each case whether a comma would be needed without the narrative interruption. Especially not if readers won’t benefit from that work.

As for periods, they pose less of a problem, at least for complete sentences. It’s only with quoted words and phrases that the distinction begins to matter—but even then, how important is it?

If the Rule Doesn’t Fit, Break It

Neither system is perfect. Chicago’s may be easier to use, but it sometimes results in ambiguity. When I talk about “punctuation,” it’s understood that I am not talking about the word punctuation followed by a comma. But if I were to ask you to type the word “punctuation”, I might want to make it perfectly clear that you are not to type the comma also.

Exceptions like that one are rare in most contexts, but if your text depends on that level of precision, by all means break the rule, as I just did—and point to CMOS 7.79 to defend your choice.

* But not without exceptions. British newspapers, for example, often use double quotation marks.

In Hart’s Rules, quotation marks were also referred to as inverted commas, a term that is still used today. But note that in most modern typefaces only the opening mark is an inverted comma; the closing mark consists of a comma oriented normally. Both marks are raised above the baseline.

Editor’s Corner posts at Shop Talk reflect the opinions of its authors and not necessarily those of The Chicago Manual of Style or the University of Chicago Press.

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Russell Harper BitmojiRussell Harper (@cpyeditor) is editor of The Chicago Manual of Style Online Q&A and was the principal reviser of the last two editions of The Chicago Manual of Style. He also contributed to the revisions of the last two editions of Kate L. Turabian’s A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations.


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