Commas and Quotation Marks

The Koan

Bumbo knocked on the door to the Temple of Meaning and said, “May I come in?”
“Did you bring a comma?” his teacher replied.
“Yes,” Bumbo answered.
“Ah,” said the teacher, “bring it inside.”

The Lesson

Bumbo wants to speak to his teacher, to have a conversation with him. If we write the conversation, the words they speak will be in quotation marks. His teacher, as we have seen, is a stickler for correct comma use, so he reminds Bumbo that they will need commas to separate the quotations from the main sentences.

The teacher reminds Bumbo that the commas go inside the quotation marks. He tells Bumbo to bring the comma inside so that their conversation may be written correctly.

The Discussion

This koan discusses a common question: Do the commas go inside the quotation marks or outside. In American English conventions, the comma goes inside the quotation marks, as we see in this example:

“Use commas correctly,” the Zen Comma master told Bumbo.

This is a simple example, one that most writers get correct. With the comma inside the quotation mark, this example follows Zen Comma Rule AH: Put the comma inside the final quotation mark. However, comma use is a bit more tricky when we quote someone’s words as part of the main sentence, as follows.

When the Zen Comma master told Bumbo to “use commas correctly or be punished,” Bumbo immediately began studying.

In this example, the introductory description needs to be followed by a comma (Rule G). However, the introductory description ends with a quoted phrase. The comma goes inside the quotation marks here, also following Rule AH.

Finally, here’s the comma use that catches most people. If you are using quotation marks to indicate that you are writing about words, as opposed to using the words, and if you put those words in a series, where do you put the commas?

In British English, you will put the commas after the quotation marks, but in American English, you put the commas inside the quotation marks, as follows.

I have trouble spelling “ennui,” “myriad,” “onomatopoeia,” and “weird.”

Some American writers will put the commas outside the quotation marks, following the British conventions. Perhaps they do this because the American convention makes the sentence look ugly due to the spaces between the words and the quotation marks that follows them. This is not a good way to make punctuation decisions.

The correct way to make decisions about commas is to know the rules and follow them consistently. If you are using American English, the commas always go inside the quotation marks.


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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