I have troubles understanding how punctuation works with quotes, it feels illogical and counter-intuitive.

I was reading an article about documentation and I came across this sentence during the part about grammar:

You need to understand the difference between “its” and “it’s;” between “there,” “they’re,” and “their;” and you need to understand why I’m putting the commas and semicolons in this sentence inside the quotes, not outside.

I did some research (there's already a question here but I got a clearer answer on grammarbook) and apparently, punctuation of the main sentence fits in the quotes. I could work with that convention, but I really don't understand it. Here's why :

The article said that:

"The placement of question marks with quotation marks follows logic (lol). If a question is within the quoted material, a question mark should be placed inside the quotation marks.

With the following examples:

She asked, "Will you still be my friend?" (question mark is part of the quotation)

Do you agree with the saying, "All's fair in love and war"? (question mark is outside the quotation)

So under certain circumstances (i.e. when you have no other choice), the punctuation of the main sentence shouldn't be between the quotes. That's fair, but now there's an exception you never really know. Why not place it outside all the time ?

Take the following sentence from the same article:

"Why," I asked, "don't you care?"

  • How do we know if the original sentence was "Why, don't you care ?" or "Why don't you care ?" ? You can tell only with the context given in the article.

It's just so much easier when the punctuation of the main sentence is outside the quotes ! I'm not saying it's stupid or anything, I just can't put sense into it.

  • Can you explain to me the logic behind it, how to know what the author meant when it's ambiguous, or why it's actually not ambiguous ?

(I know it's probably just rules I have to get used to but I feel like I'm missing a piece of the puzzle.)

  • 3
    These conventions are arbitrary, and they vary. You will have to follow the "house rules" if it has them. If the phrase inside the quotation marks is a question, put the question mark inside the quotation marks. Best to avoid asking questions about questions in such a way that you have two question marks side by side, separated only by a quotation mark.
    – TimR
    Commented Jan 6, 2017 at 12:24
  • What does "Are you ready to rumble?" mean? vs What does it mean, "Are you ready to rumble?"?
    – TimR
    Commented Jan 6, 2017 at 12:30
  • 2
    In your "why don't you care?" example, I would think the original has to be "Why, don't you care?" because you normally only break up a quote at a meaningful breaking-point like a comma. You would never write "The," he said, "sky is blue." Since you know there's a breaking-point where he said is introduced, it must be "Why, don't you care?" But yes, there is always some ambiguity.
    – stangdon
    Commented Jan 6, 2017 at 12:50
  • 1
    Regarding the question marks, I think the logic is pretty simple: are you quoting a question, or asking a question about a quote? If Mary said Will you be my friend?, because it's a question, it has to have a question mark, no matter how we're quoting it, whether it's Mary said, "Will you be my friend?" or Did Mary say "Will you be my friend?" Maybe arguably the last one should be Did Mary say "Will you be my friend?"? but punctuation doesn't work that way, oh well.
    – stangdon
    Commented Jan 6, 2017 at 12:53
  • 2
    @TeleportingGoat - In that case you're right, context suggests it should be "Why don't you care?" but in that case I think the way the question is written is bad; it should not be broken up that way.
    – stangdon
    Commented Jan 6, 2017 at 12:57

2 Answers 2


It seems to me that you're asking more than just about punctuation without quotations.

  1. How do we know if the original sentence was "Why, don't you care?" or "Why don't you care?"? You can tell only with the context given in the article.

You're right. We can't tell.

But this isn't because of the placement of the question mark.

It's because "I asked" had been put in a very awkward place in the example sentence.

  1. It's just so much easier when the punctuation of the main sentence is outside the quotes!

Not always.

Would you say that the following two statements mean the same?

  • "Why," I asked, "don't you care?"
  • "Why," I asked, "don't you care"?

The first one implies to us that both the sentence and the original quote were questions.

The second one implies that the sentence had been a statement and the original quote had been a question.

So it's actually easier to understand the intended meaning because the question mark goes in different places at different times.

What do you think? Does this help?

  • Kind of, thanks. If I'm bringing this up, it's because in my language punctuation is outside (not just question marks, commas too) and there is never even half an ambiguity. I'm kind of nitpicking, I'm sure there are rarely any ambiguities, but I'm sure this convention also has benefits and I'd like to understand why this was chosen (It can't be just arbitrary, can it ?). Commented Jan 10, 2017 at 12:54
  • About your "2.", the main problem was the comma, I don't see how "I asked" can be a question, and how "don't you care" can be a statement. And that's just how we write it, so basically you're making an exception of your system to come back to the other one when it's not clear, I don't really see how it makes it easier. Commented Jan 10, 2017 at 12:57
  • @TeleportingGoat I see now what you mean. You mean like this, "'Why don't you care?' I asked?" and "Don't you care." All I could say is these are very contextualized examples. I could imagine an instance of someone using a question mark after "I asked" and I could imagine an instance of someone using a period after "Don't you care," but like you say, they would be the exception. Commented Jan 13, 2017 at 10:39
  • @TeleportingGoat Also, I just realized, the problem with your example sentence is you're missing some punctuation. "Why," I asked, "don't you care?". If you have that extra period, although a bit ugly, I think that this would make clear the meaning you intend. Commented Jan 16, 2017 at 11:43
  • What extra period? There is already two periods in the sentence. Commented Jan 16, 2017 at 12:49

It was always my understanding that if you literally quote something, you always place whatever punctuation marks were in the original text.

I was googling for movie quotes and the first I found is "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn." which I don't recognize.

But if you use them for any other purpose, it's your call.

I asked him "how are you" but he ignored me.
I asked him "How are you?" but he ignored me.

Obviously in this case I'm quoting myself but it's not written anywhere so the punctuation marks' usage is arbitrary.

Although if the sentence ends with a quotation mark, the punctuation mark there should usually come before that.

I asked him "how are you." He ignored me.

Unless of course the sentence ends with a real quotation. In that case whether you omit the punctuation mark from the end of the quote depends on its usage.

Why is the first movie quote I found is "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn"?
The first I found with a question mark is "Why don't you come up sometime and see me".
How good is the movie with the line "Why don't you come up sometime and see me?"

Basically if the punctuation mark matches the one you'd use, you leave it inside, if it doesn't, you omit it and place yours after the quotation mark.

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