A Question Mark in a Quotation

Here’s a thorny usage issue: where does the question mark go in a quotation – before or after the quotation marks?

For example, suppose you’re writing a short story about a party. The host – let’s call him Bob – whispers a question to Mary, one of the guests. Mary’s husband is suspicious about the whispering and wants to know what was going on. He soon finds out it was perfectly innocent – Bob just wanted to know the name of one of the other guests.

Would you put the question mark inside – or outside? And is there a hard-and-fast rule? 

What I do is to think about the speaker’s voice. Everything inside the quotation marks belongs to the speaker. Since Bob had a question mark in his voice, I would put the question mark inside the quotation marks:

Bob whispered, “Mary, do you know the name of the woman in the corner who’s wearing a red suit?”  CORRECT

Now let’s try a different situation. I have a line of poetry in my head – “But I have promises to keep.” I think Robert Frost wrote it, but I’m not sure. I call my friend Jane. Here’s my question: 

Did Robert Frost write the line, “But I have promises to keep”?  CORRECT

There’s no question in Robert Frost’s voice, so I put the question mark outside.

The same principle works for exclamation marks. In the sentence below, there’s excitement in Clare’s voice, so I’m going to put the exclamation mark inside the quotation marks:

The first thing Clare said to me was, “I’m so happy to see you!” CORRECT

Now let’s look at a different situation. A store manager refused to give me a refund that I think I’m entitled to. He was speaking calmly. I’m the one who expresses shock:

I can’t believe the manager told me, “You’re not entitled to a refund”! CORRECT

Let’s try a few more:

Joe asked, “What time is the show supposed to end?” CORRECT

Did Marilyn say, “I’ll probably be 30 minutes late tomorrow”? CORRECT

When we’d finished dessert, Sally said, “What a great meal!”  CORRECT

After we’d spent the whole weekend helping George, he didn’t even say “Thank you”!


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