Thursday, July 5, 2012

ol'." ol.'" or ol'". Which is it?

• Does the period go before the apostrophe when a dialect-inflected word of your dialog ends the sentence?
• What if the apostrophe is actually a single quote emphasizing a word within a sentence or setting off a movie title like 'Black Hawk Down,' would the comma or period go before or after the single quote?
• How about if you have a list of them?

As an editor, I just wanted to clarify on these questions. Some of them have rarely been addressed on the web, yet they are common mistakes made by many, many writers. I ran into this problem early on in my writing and editing careers and have consistently encountered them time and again while editing other authors' works. I've researched the answers in the Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) and throughout the web. After a good bit of searching, I discovered that some of the answers depend on the situation and your location.

First, lets look at the first related group of questions regarding dialog.

Questions: "The dan' dog was ol'" Would you place the period before the single quotation mark being used in place of the letter or not? What if your example isn't dialect, but a plural possessive that ends the sentence? "Mom, we went to Martins' house, but they had to go. So we wound up at the Nelsons'" Where would the period or comma go?

Answer: It sounds a bit like something Mark Twain would have written, and while many authors attempt to avoid the inflection of missing letters as dialect would dictate, many writers prefer to stay true to a character's voice. However, they still wish to follow proper grammar rules as dictated by CMOS and other authorities. CMOS says always place commas and periods before quotation marks. The key here is when you have a missing letter, you are replacing it with an apostrophe, not a single quotation mark. So, according to CMOS, no period or comma should go between a word and its apostrophe. That means both examples should be punctuated like this:

"The dan' dog was ol'."
"Mom, we went to Martins' house, but they had to go. So we wound up at the Nelsons'."

If you have a tagline following it, always remember that the period needs to be replaced with a comma, but the placement won't change.

Now to answer the second group of punctuation questions mentioned at the beginning of this post.

Questions: What if the apostrophe is actually a single quote emphasizing a word within a sentence or setting off a movie title like 'Black Hawk Down' would the comma or period go before or after the single quote? How about if you have a list of them?

Answer: These are very good questions and for this, it truly depends on your location. As I said before, CMOS is basically the Bible for writers. They say that all periods and commas go inside quotation marks, both single and double.

This means that the correct way to punctuate a sentence using this example would be:
I just watched the movie 'Black Hawk Down.' The period is inside the closing single quotation mark.

The same goes for if you have a list:
We sat through an entire movie marathon and watched "A Life of Crime," "Tango and Cash," and 'Black Hawk Down.'

An additional error I have often seen people make with punctuation regarding single quotes happens when they use them to emphasize a word. For example:
I wouldn't say it was enjoyed by 'all'

Here the period again goes inside the closing single quotation mark, so it would be:
I wouldn't say it was enjoyed by 'all.'

This creates problems for some writers, especially programmers when one letter or punctuation mark can entirely change something. For instance, imagine if you are writing instructions and telling a programmer to change a section of code to "header." Because of this rule, you've just told your programmer to add a period to the end of the header command, even though that may not be what you intended. While I'm not much of a programmer, I know enough that this can entirely change the program and how it works. I don't necessarily agree with this logic, and neither do a lot of other people. Unfortunately, this is the accepted rule throughout the US.

However, as I said, your location and where you're shopping your writing matters in this case. In Britain there is an accepted system that is somewhat more logical. The accepted form in Britain requires the author or editor to determine if the quoted material is part of the sentence being punctuated or separate. So, for the cases above, most British authorities would place the commas and/or periods outside the quoted material.

Hope these tidbits of punctuation knowledge help.

Weston Kincade ~ Author of Invisible Dawn, A Life of Death, and Strange Circumstances


  1. This is definitely a useful post. However, I thought that titles of things like books and movies had to be italicized these days, so it probably would have been better to make a distinction as to whether the content was typed on a computer or not.

  2. Movies and books are sometimes italicized nowadays. However, it is the author's choice in most instances. Technically book names can still be underlined rather than italicized. But you will see movies done in quotes or in italics depending on where you look. That is a transition that is occurring with the digital age. However, many forms of media that are short such as articles, poems, and short stories are still placed in quotes. In addition, some authors use single quotation marks for individual character thoughts, whereas that is also something that is in the process of transitioning to italics. But for indicating the written word, like a sign, single quotes are used and to add emphasis single quotes are often used.

    While the rules of the game are changing, there are still many instances where these rules are very applicable and it poses problems for authors. Thank you for pointing out the transitions in the industry. I may need to do a follow-up post on that later. I certainly hope that some day the US might look at the rules mentioned above more like Britain. It would certainly make it more logical.


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