Consider the following sentence:

Did you know you can donate "stuff"?

"Stuff" in this case means "anything besides cash." It's the lead-in to an article informing users on a charity's website that they can gift things like stocks, bonds, vehicles, real estate, commodities, jewelry, and other non-cash assets.

The APA Style Guide says to put question marks:

  • Inside, if question mark or exclamation point is part of quoted material
  • Outside, if question mark or exclamation point is not part of quoted material

What makes me uncertain about my example sentence is that I'm not sure how to properly apply the "quoted material" test. It seems to me that the quote marks are being used here as scare quotes, to signal unusual usage, or perhaps it's nonstandard usage where a typographic change, like italicizing or bolding, would be more appropriate.

In any case, the bottom line is the quotes are not being used to denote "quoted material," at least in the sense of "material that is being quoted from elsewhere." This APA rule seems to be only addressing that type of quotation mark usage. So I'm not sure whether the question marks should go inside or outside the quote marks.

The simplest "solution" is to interpret "quoted material" to mean anything that is in quote marks, whether or not clearly a quote of content from another author or location. Is this an appropriate interpretation?

I'm particularly interested in references to reputable sources that address this question. Thank you!

  • There are many people who terminally-punctuate inside or outside even regular quotes as seems more logical in the individual case. Indeed, some doubly punctuate where not illogical: Did he ask "Which way is the station?"? You can probably find some people who'd say that this is wrong; you usually can, and they don't seem to care that other style guides exist than the one they've bought. With scare quotes, it's unlikely that the question mark will be part of the 'quote' or 'scarewords' rather than part of the matrix question. It's certainly not here. Commented Aug 20, 2014 at 13:49

3 Answers 3


The APA Style Guide is not a legal text trying to cover all bases in a final way. You are quoting the word stuff in the sense that you are putting quotation marks around it. Unless you are quoting the question Stuff?, the question mark is obviously not part of the quoted material.

Also, the APA Style Guide is only for dubious cases. Since there was never a typographic tradition of putting large punctuation such as question marks inside the quotation marks when they don't logically belong there, the question doesn't even arise for question marks in the first place and so naturally the APA Style Guide was not written with the intent of settling it. (The tradition of putting periods and commas inside the quotation marks was originally in order to put them closer to an alphabetic letter so as to protect the delicate (physical) letter/type/sort against breaking off. It is only by inertia that some style guides still require it now that the necessity no longer exists. To the extent that there is an optical problem, a thin negative space that could be applied automatically would be a better solution.) It's just an accident that the APA Style Guide can be interpreted so as to yield the correct result.

  • I believe you are saying: 1) in my example, the ? should be outside the quote marks (stuff being the "quoted material", and ? not being part of it), and 2) it's not directly or intentionally addressed by the APA Style Guide, but you can interpret it so it works (although that's "just an accident" that it works). Have I understood you correctly?
    – Josh
    Commented Aug 20, 2014 at 13:55
  • Yes. Though the odds that a style guide accidentally gives the right advice on a question for which it was not meant are probably pretty high, so it's not a surprising coincidence.
    – user86291
    Commented Aug 23, 2014 at 14:23
  • What is the "delicate (physical) letter/type/sort" that you mentioned in your answer?"
    – Josh
    Commented Aug 23, 2014 at 17:44
  • I was referring to classical book printing. The image in the Wikipedia article shows a sort for the letter H. There is no problem with it. It's unlikely to break during printing even if this letter is the only letter on the page. But a tiny dot or comma will break off after a few copies have been printed if it isn't close to some other sort. If you print "this," the comma is supported by the letter s, but if you print "this", the comma is far from the letter s and much lower than the quotation mark, so it will break.
    – user86291
    Commented Aug 26, 2014 at 17:13
  • Before people were used to the practice, swapping quotation marks and periods/commas must have looked unfamiliar and unprofessional. But without the practice, in most copies of a book these periods and commas were missing completely, leaving a gap. Obviously this looked even less professional. By the way, problems of this nature are why earlier printings of a book from the same sorts sometimes sold for more money.
    – user86291
    Commented Aug 26, 2014 at 17:15

It definitely belongs outside the quotes. The ? is in the scope of the sentence, but outside the scope of your emphasis on stuff. <-- period goes outside, see?

  • 1
    This makes logical sense, but curiously enough, APA says that the period always goes inside the quotation marks! And question marks could go inside or outside, depending on usage. After reading through the APA rules I still wasn't sure, and it didn't seem to follow a simple "logical scope" rule, hence my question.
    – Josh
    Commented Aug 20, 2014 at 14:10
  • 1
    Well I guess I just fundamentally disagree with them :( If they give you the freedom to be logical with your question marks, then by all means do so if only for me and my sanity :D
    – Dave
    Commented Aug 20, 2014 at 14:13
  • 1
    I also disagree with the traditional placement of periods and commas in the Anglosphere. I don't know any other language in which this rule has been preserved to this day. It seems to satisfy a widespread demand for technical rules that make no intrinsic sense but can serve as a shibboleth. Some people defend it as if it were a core feature of the English language. The rule was once necessary, though, as I explained in my answer.
    – user86291
    Commented Aug 23, 2014 at 14:26

I generally place a comma or question mark when its not a title but inside the quotation mark, and then complete the sentence. I sometimes use quotes to emplasize words I wish to stand out. I wrote the book, "Coven's Creed," By Sunny Celts, and truly enjoyed doing it. Here the choice should be up to the writer, since either is grammatically acceptable."

  • This is very confusing to read. I think your first sentence is a run on. Commented Feb 16, 2015 at 10:18

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