Why do periods and commas go inside quotation marks in MLA style?

The MLA Handbook notes, “By convention, commas and periods that directly follow quotations go inside the closing quotation marks” (88). Thus, in the following sentence, the comma is placed after taught:

“You’ve got to be carefully taught,” wrote Oscar Hammerstein II.

The rule is the same for a list of titles:

Julio Cortázar wrote many short stories, including “La noche boca arriba,” “Casa tomada,” and “Babas del diablo.”

It is also the same for instances where a title within a title comes at the end of a sentence:

A new approach to Flannery O’Connor’s short story can be found in the essay “The Uncanny Theology of ‘A Good Man Is Hard to Find.’”

This placement is traditional in the United States. William Strunk, Jr., and E. B. White, writing in 1959, noted that “[t]ypographical usage dictates the comma be inside the marks, though logically it seems not to belong there” (36). In other words, in the predigital era, when fonts were fixed-width, setting a period or comma outside the quotation marks would have created an unsightly gap: 

Punctuation inside quotation marks - MLA style

But Robert Bringhurst, writing in the era of digital fonts, maintains that it generally “makes no typographic difference” if quotation marks “follow commas and periods or precede them” (87). Digital typographers can close up the gap:

 

Punctuation outside the quotation mark - MLA style

The convention nonetheless remains.

In British style, spacing issues are less pronounced because it uses single quotation marks instead of double, and commas and periods are placed outside the quotation marks:

‘You’ve got to be carefully taught’, wrote Oscar Hammerstein II.

Julio Cortázar wrote many short stories, including ‘La noche boca arriba’, ‘Casa tomada’, and ‘Babas del diablo’.

A new approach to Flannery O’Connor’s short story can be found in the essay ‘The Uncanny Theology of “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”’.

Those who prefer the British style argue, as does Ben Yagoda in Slate, that “[i]nsinuating a period or comma within the unit alters it in a rather underhanded manner.” It’s important to note, however, that other conventions for altering the typographic display of quotations exist. For example, note numbers are omitted, end-of-line hyphenation is not reproduced, and double quotation marks in the source are converted to single marks.1 The imperative to transcribe the wording of quotations exactly, in other words, is compatible with conventions for integrating them into one’s own prose.

Yagoda also points to the inconsistency of the method used in the United States, which places “other punctuation marks—semicolons, colons, exclamation points, question marks, dashes” outside quotation marks. But the editors of The Chicago Manual of Style note that “[e]xceptions” to the British style “are widespread” (309), so in terms of consistency, neither approach is better than the other.

The point of conventions is that they provide common tools for understanding, so if you are preparing material in a British context, follow British rules. But if you are preparing a paper for a class or for publication in the United States, place periods and commas inside quotation marks. 

Note

1. Read our earlier post on what you can omit when quoting sources.

Works Cited

Bringhurst, Robert. The Elements of Typographic Style. 2nd ed., Hartley and Marks, 1999.

The Chicago Manual of Style. 16th ed., U of Chicago P, 2010.

MLA Handbook. 8th ed., Modern Language Association of America, 2016.

Strunk, William, Jr., and E. B. White. The Elements of Style. 1959. 4th ed., Pearson, 2000.

Yagoda, Ben. “The Rise of ‘Logical Punctuation’.” Slate, 12 May 2011, www.slate.com/articles/life/the_good_word/2011/05/the_rise_of_logical_punctuation.html.

 

 

 

 

Published 1 February 2018

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