In rewriting my book for the seventeenth time, I realized that I will go to extreme lengths to avoid certain difficult rules of grammar and syntax. I would rather rewrite the whole paragraph than choose between “It is me” and “It is I.” 1
I call this the Grammatical Alley-Oop.
You know what you want to say. You know-ish how you want to say it. But when you put it on paper, you feel Doubt peeking over your shoulder. “That’s atrocious,” Doubt says. “Who in the world has such terrible grammar?”
And you have no way to respond, for you do not know whether to say “It is me” or “It is I.”
Now, I know very little about drawing and even less about basketball, but I do know a marginal amount about grammar. 2 I was recently asked about one particularly common Grammatical Alley-Oop, so I figured I’d draw some bad art about it.
Picture this: You have an urgent email to write. You start clacking away at your keyboard.
You freeze. You stare at the blinking cursor. It mocks you. Is that where I was supposed to put the period? Should something be capitalized? You glance over your shoulder. No one is watching. You delete your shame.
You execute a flawless Grammatical Alley-Oop. You have removed the need for quotation marks. You tell yourself that no one will notice your artful quotation avoidance. You continue clacking.
Ah, but such is the peril of the Grammatical Alley-Oop. Such a maneuver does not slay your grammar demons. It merely keeps them at bay until they rear up again. It might take a day. It might take a week. But they will come back, and they will probably come back when you’re with that friend who will point out a typo on a restaurant menu and stare at you expectantly until you find it.
So let’s talk about quotation marks.
Okay, so these are not quotation marks but Crow-tation Marks. 3 We had so much fun with birds last month that I made the ill-advised move to draw more of them. Anyway. Quotation marks.
For whatever reason, people really seem to hate them. Fortunately, they come up pretty often in books, so if I’m doing them wrong, well, that’s awkward.
Here’s the good news: They are almost certainly simpler than you think they are.
(Disclaimer: These are rules for American English. It gets more complicated if you aren’t writing in American English.)
Periods and Commas
This is gonna be a pretty wild set of rules. Ready?
- Take your periods and commas and put them inside your quotation marks.
- That’s really the only rule.
- “I found a weasel,” Tina said, 4 “and it’s living in the office printer.”
- She never liked the word “weasel.”
- It’s probably because the word “weasel” reminds her of “Weasley,” and she is still distraught by Fred’s death.
Colons and Semicolons
Just like you can assume periods and commas always go inside your quotation marks, you can assume colons and semicolons always go outside the quotation marks.
- She said she was shocked by “the wild creature”; upon further inspection, the creature turned out to be a black-footed ferret.
- According to the IUCN, the black-footed ferret is “endangered”: a species that will likely go extinct in the near future.
Question Marks, Exclamation Points, and Dashes
These three are the trickiest because they can go inside or outside your quotation marks. When you’re choosing where to put them, ask yourself: “Is this dialogue?”
If you are quoting someone who used a question mark, exclamation point, or dash in their speech, put it in the quotation marks. If you are adding it yourself, leave it outside.
- “I know a black-footed ferret”—Tina stomped her foot—“when I see one!”
- “If you were mistaken—” 5
- “Why are you incapable of trusting me?” Tina said.
- Does Tina want to know why you’re “incapable of trust”?
- “I don’t understand how a ferret got in our printer!” she said.
- To coax the ferret out of the break room, we’ll play “Closing Time”!
So there are your rules.
- Periods and commas: inside.
- Colons and semicolons: outside.
- Question marks, exclamation points, and dashes: depends on context.
Really, though, unless you’re writing long narratives, you probably only care about periods and commas. So let’s exhaust that point until it’s seared in our brains. Remember our Crow-tation Marks?
So you start your sentence with some Crow-tation Marks.
And then you say some stuff.
“Please donate to save endangered ferrets
Now you need to close off your sentence. And you try to remember where your period/comma is supposed to go.
Well, the Marks love periods and commas. They want to trap them in their avian talons. Include your final punctuation before you throw your end quotes:
But what punctuation do you use? Well, we’re talking commas and periods. We’re feeling arty, I guess, so let’s draw it. If quotation marks can be birds, a comma can be a snail.
I love commas. I love commas way too much. I love commas so much that I once had a critique partner drop me because she “could not bear to read a story with so many commas.”
But the Marks love commas even more than I do.
Let’s give our new comma friend a name. He looks dapper. Stately. Let’s call him a Commandant. Commandant… Snell. That’s it.
(My parents tell me I should’ve made the Commandant a chameleon and played this song. Joke’s on them. I can’t draw chameleons.)
Anyway. The Marks love Commandant Snell. They absorb him in their winged clutches. So we’ve got our sentence:
“Please donate to save endangered ferrets,” she said, “because they are an important part of prairie ecosystems.”
Or, in our obnoxious animal art:
There ya have it. I wish you the best of luck in all your quotation endeavors. May you boldly use quotation marks in your next workplace correspondence.