Quotation marks create their own special problems: Do question marks go inside or outside of them? And when are quotation marks used versus italics? Here’s a review of the trouble spots:
Question marks and exclamation points
In situations involving quotation marks with question marks and exclamation points, the rule is “keep them together.” In other words, keep the punctuation with the group of words that is an exclamation or question.
For example, if you are quoting something that itself is a question or exclamation, the punctuation stays inside the quotation marks with the rest of those words:
Five executives left the office asking, “What happened to my job?”
The chairman of the board shouted, “Enough with the bureaucracy!”
But if the quoted material is simply a part of a sentence that is an exclamation or question as a whole, the punctuation stays outside with the rest of the sentence:
Do you understand what he meant about a “temporary reduction in force”?
I demand that we abide by our rule of “zero tolerance”!
Did you read the article “Customer Service for Today’s Business”?
The rules are easier for other punctuation marks. Semicolons and colons always go outside the quotation marks; commas and periods always go inside. (Unless, of course, you’re in England. The British put them outside and often use single quotation marks in instances where Americans use double ones.)
It’s incorrect to use a string of punctuation:
NOT: We look forward to the presentation “Terrorism: What Should Companies Be Watching For?”.
INSTEAD: We look forward to the presentation “Terrorism: What Should Companies Be Watching For?”
Of course, some companies have gone out of their way to make these rules complicated. For example, Yahoo! has an exclamation point as part of its name, just like the game show Jeopardy! and the musical Oklahoma! But since company names aren’t italicized, Yahoo! creates more of a challenge, not the least of which is turning off the auto-correct feature so that your software doesn’t automatically capitalize the next word as you type. Generally, the rule is to use a company’s name as the company uses it. However, some journalists don’t: the Associated Press stylebook says to omit the exclamation point when referring to the search engine company.
The battle of italics vs. quotations marks
Generally, grammar books tell you to use italics or underlining for titles of the following:
Books (except the Bible)
Plays and musicals
Works of art
Grammar books also suggest italicizing or underlining the following:
Foreign words in a sentence otherwise in English
Names of software programs
Names of spacecraft, trains, aircraft, and ships
Words used as words
Letters used as letters
Numbers mentioned as numbers
Quotation marks are reserved for smaller units of the items mentioned above:
Chapter in a book
Article in a magazine or newspaper
Single episode of a TV show or radio program
Of course, those pesky journalists have a quarrel with the grammar rules. Before computers came along, it was difficult to set underlining or italics in print, so journalists used quotation marks for many of the items listed above as being italicized, like movie and book titles. That practice continues today. However, editors of some publications — Time magazine, for instance — are ignoring the old conventions, taking advantage of computer technology, and using italics the way their English teachers taught them to.
Next Time: Unpopular Punctuation: The Marks You Probably Avoid