Quite a few authors and editors go wrong when punctuating direct speech. I freely admit there are a number of ways to swing this cat, but we can at least nail down some ground rules. (That’s a terrible mix of metaphors, I know.)
There are differences between British English (BE) and American English (AE), so I’ll base this post mainly on BE and then give AE variations.
(A quick word on single versus double quote marks. If you pick up an older novel, it’ll typically use doubles; but these days, singles are much more commonly used. That’s not to say you can’t use double quote marks if you prefer them.)
When you quote a complete sentence, it earns the right to its own punctuation. Thus in the following examples, the second quote mark goes outside the full stop.
Al Alvarez writes: ‘To put yourself into a situation where a mistake cannot necessarily be recouped, where the life you lose may be your own, clears the head wonderfully.’
Al Alvarez writes: ‘To put yourself into a situation where a mistake cannot necessarily be recouped . . . clears the head wonderfully.’
‘To put yourself into a situation,’ writes Alvarez, ‘where a mistake cannot necessarily be recouped, where the life you lose may be your own, clears the head wonderfully.’
Note also how a colon precedes the direct speech. A comma is fine, too:
Jane said, ‘There’s someone at the door — quick, shut the dog in the kitchen.’
The same ‘outside’ rule applies even if you quote only the opening part of a sentence and then continue in your own words or in indirect speech:
‘The male stripper attempted a rapid escape,’ began the sergeant, who went on to describe the man’s unfortunate injuries.
If, however, we quote a sentence that is incomplete and lacks its opening words, a new rule applies:
Alvarez loved climbing, not least because it pits us against the forces that threaten us and, in so doing, makes us feel fully alive. Putting your own life on the line, he asserted, ‘clears the head wonderfully’.
The sergeant explained how the strippergram had ‘attempted a rapid escape after the dog bit him in the nethers’.
Now, it is the contextual sentence that rules the roost and earns the right to its own punctuation. So the full stop is outside the final quote mark. Note, too, that the quoted material must obey the syntax of the surrounding sentence.
Direct speech (American English)
In AE, quote marks always fall outside of the punctuation marks:
“To put yourself into a situation where a mistake cannot necessarily be recouped, where the life you lose may be your own, clears the head wonderfully.”
Putting your own life on the line, he asserted, “clears the head wonderfully.”
Note, too, how AE uses double quote marks.
Quotes within quotes
In BE, a quote within a quote is set in double quote marks — assuming, that is, the outer marks are singles — and it follows all the rules given above.
‘Most of what makes a book “good”,’ says Alain de Botton, ‘is that we are reading it at the right moment for us.’
In AE, you switch the double quote marks with the singles:
“Most of what makes a book ‘good,’” says Alain de Botton, “is that we are reading it at the right moment for us.”
See also how the comma following ‘good’ sits inside the single quote mark. This agrees with the rule above about AE direct speech.
There are, as ever, a few curveballs with direct speech punctuation, but for brevity’s sake I’ll cover them in a separate post.
Also, quote marks have other uses beyond bracketing direct speech. They frame the titles of essays, newspaper/journal articles and book chapters, among other things. They also, unfortunately, pop up as scare quotes.