Does the Comma Go Inside or Outside?

Which one of these sentences uses commas correctly?

“Peanut butter”, the clerk said.
This author claims “words are fluid”, based on his experiences.
The term “win-win”, used as a business cliché, drives me nuts.

The Problem

You are putting something in quotation marks. You might be using quotation marks to indicate that the text is someone else’s words, is dialogue, or is a word or phrase to discuss.

Perhaps you already know Zen Comma Rule AG: Separate quoted material from the main sentence with commas. However, this rule doesn’t answer a common question: Does the comma go outside or inside the final quotation mark?

The answer is, “It depends.”

U.S. Conventions

If you’re using U.S. writing conventions, the comma in each case will go inside the final quotation mark. I admit that this doesn’t always make sense.

Quotation marks are used to indicate exact words, such as the words someone says. In particular, if you are quoting something from another text, you would expect that whatever is inside the quotation marks to be the exact text you are quoting. If the comma isn’t part of the quoted text, you wouldn’t expect it to be inside the quotation marks. But it is.

Similarly, if you’re using quotation marks to indicate that you are writing about a particular word or phrase, you might not want to put the comma inside the quotation marks. After all, the comma isn’t part of the word or phrase you’re discussing, so you might think it doesn’t go inside the quotation marks. But it does.

Using U.S. conventions, the sentences above are punctuated as follows.

“Peanut butter,” the clerk said.
This author claims “words are fluid,” based on his experiences.
The term “win-win,” used as a business cliché, drives me nuts.

Standard U.S. writing conventions demand that you put the comma inside the quotation marks–even if doing so doesn’t make sense.

British Conventions

If you’re using British writing conventions, the comma goes outside the quotation marks. This makes more sense.

In standard British writing conventions, only the actual words being quoted go inside the quotation marks. If the comma is not part of the quoted material, it goes outside the quotation marks.

Based on British writing conventions, the sample sentences above are already correct.

Advice on Commas with Quotation Marks

If you’re using U.S. writing conventions, you need to follow Zen Comma Rule AH: Put the comma inside the final quotation mark.


Need help with commas? Get Zen Comma, an instructive reference guide on the 17 major uses and misuses of commas, available in PDF and Kindle formats. Read more about Zen Comma.

Your Writing Companion: Our e-book with samples from each of our writing guides: Get the free e-book (PDF, 45 pages) or purchase the Kindle version ($0.99).

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