Blog/Grammar tips
1 December 2023
3 min read

Semicolons and Quotation Marks: Where Do They Belong?

Navigating the rules of punctuation can sometimes feel like trying to solve a complex puzzle. One common question that often stumps even seasoned writers is: "Do semicolons go inside or outside quotation marks?" This might seem like a small detail, but in the world of writing, such nuances can greatly impact the clarity and professionalism of your work. Let's demystify this punctuation conundrum and ensure your writing is as polished as it can be.

Understanding the Role of Semicolons and Quotation Marks

Before we dive into their placement, let's briefly recap what these punctuation marks do. Semicolons act like a middle ground between a comma and a full stop; they link closely related ideas that could stand as separate sentences. Quotation marks, on the other hand, are used to denote speech, quotations, or specific terms.

The General Rule: Semicolons Outside Quotation Marks

In most cases, semicolons should be placed outside quotation marks. This rule applies regardless of whether you're using single (‘ ’) or double (“ ”) quotation marks.

Example for Clarity

  • Correct: She said, “We should start early tomorrow”; she was always punctual.
  • Incorrect: She said, “We should start early tomorrow;” she was always punctual.

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When to Place Semicolons Inside Quotation Marks

There are rare instances where a semicolon might be placed inside quotation marks. This typically happens when the semicolon is part of the quoted material itself.

An Exception to the Rule

  • Correct (when the semicolon is part of the quote): He read aloud, “In this section, we discuss the causes of climate change; these include natural and human-induced factors.”
  • Incorrect: He read aloud, “In this section, we discuss the causes of climate change”; these include natural and human-induced factors.

Tips for Remembering the Rule

Remembering where to place semicolons in relation to quotation marks can be tricky. Here are a couple of tips to help you remember:

  • Think of the Semicolon as Independent: Since a semicolon often connects independent clauses, it usually stands outside the quotation marks, which tend to enclose a specific segment of text.
  • Quotation Marks Enclose Only What’s Being Quoted: If the semicolon is not part of the original quote, it stays outside.

Conclusion

In the grand scheme of writing, understanding the placement of semicolons in relation to quotation marks is a small but significant part of crafting clear and professional prose. By following these guidelines, you can ensure that your punctuation serves its purpose without causing confusion.

Frequently Asked Questions

Do these rules apply to both American and British English?

Yes, the placement of semicolons outside quotation marks is standard in both American and British English.

What if a sentence inside quotation marks requires a semicolon?

If a semicolon is required within a quoted sentence, it should be placed inside the quotation marks.

Can a semicolon be used to introduce a quote?

No, semicolons are not typically used to introduce quotes. A colon is more appropriate in such cases.

How do I handle multiple sentences within quotation marks that need semicolons?

Place the semicolon inside the quotation marks if it's part of the quoted material. If it's part of the main sentence structure, it should be outside.

Are there any exceptions to these rules?

The main exception is when the semicolon is part of the quoted material itself. Otherwise, the standard practice is to place it outside the quotation marks.

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