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In an essay for my English class I wrote this sentence.

The decision of what I would like to do with my future has been filled with phrases like "undecided", "I don't know", and "I'm not sure yet".

The phrases weren't 100% direct quotations, they were a generalization of typical responses that I gave when asked about my future. The sentence was corrected because the commas and the period were outside the quotation marks.

After further discourse with my teacher we acknowledged the difference between actually quoting myself and just mentioning general phrases that are used often in a list. She stated that she liked my use of the quotation marks to emphasize those generic phrases.

Taking this into account what is the correct usage of commas and quotation marks in a list like this? Or are quotation marks even the right thing to use?

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  • The prescriptivist rule is that the commas go inside the quotation marks. However, that often just doesn't work, as in "undecided," "I don't know,", where the two quotes back-to-back just looks wrong. I think there is some room for personal judgment, provided that personal judgment is permitted (which may not be the case in a classroom situation).
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Oct 27, 2014 at 19:49
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    The rule of placing all punctuation within quotation marks is a (largely AmE) holdover from bygone typesetting necessities. Do what best serves clarity. Commented Oct 27, 2014 at 20:38

2 Answers 2

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As a general rule, the comma should always go inside a quotation mark - at least in the United States. In British writing I've often heard that the comma only goes inside quotation marks if it is part of the quote but I know that in the states I've had people correct me for doing that.

The only exception in American style writing that I can think of would be for certain citation styles where each of the quotes would be followed by a source.

"The falcon has a lifetime of "approximately 50 years" (Warren 92), "with some falcons living as long as 80 years in good environments" (Walter 67), and some "only living to the age of 12 before being eaten by squirrels" (Williams 12).

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You say that the 3 example replies are not exact self quotes, therefore the use of quotation marks is incorrect.

The decision of what I would like to do with my future has been filled with phrases like; undecided, I don't know, and I'm not sure yet.

If you wish the reader to understand them as direct quotes then each is a complete sentence and should be separated with a full stop within the QMs.

The decision of what I would like to do with my future has been filled with phrases like; "Undecided." "I don't know." "I'm not sure yet."

More useful imformation can be found here: http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/words/punctuation-in-direct-speech

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    Where do you get the rule that quotation marks can only be used around direct quotations? Isn't this a case of "misguided prescriptivism"?
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Oct 27, 2014 at 19:54
  • Well for starters the clue is in the name. They are not called hearsay marks or might-have-said marks are they? I also made no mention of a rule, I simple said that QM's were incorrect if they are not exact quotes otherwise the reader will assume that they ARE direct quotes. That choice is up to the author.
    – Joe Dark
    Commented Oct 27, 2014 at 20:26
  • But they are direct quotes. the fact that the writer of the words is the writer of the words quoted is irrelevant. You wrote "I also made no mention of a rule". I wrote "But they are direct quotes". My quotation of my own "But they are direct quotes" is - there is no other word for it - a quotation.
    – tunny
    Commented Oct 27, 2014 at 20:38
  • "The phrases weren't 100% direct quotations, they were a generalization of typical responses that I gave when asked about my future." Direct quote!
    – Joe Dark
    Commented Oct 27, 2014 at 20:39

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