For example, take the following sentence that refers to a text message:

This happened after she told me "Okay."

If the original contents of the message did include a period, it would serve a double purpose. However, if it did not, one must be added. This means that there are two equally valid interpretations of what the actual message was. It could either be "Okay" or "Okay."

I believe that the latter has a colder and more rigid tone to it, and therefore I would like to clearly convey that the exact contents of a given text message either contains a period or does not – without changing the structure of my sentence. How can I do so?

  • And what if your quotation contained a quotation that may have included a period? "He wrote, 'Okay.'" This just seems to be deficiency of English punctuation. – Juhasz May 15 '20 at 21:02
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    In the above example there's nothing really wrong with putting the period after the quote. – Hot Licks May 15 '20 at 21:02
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    I can't see why it matters whether the original message contained a period or not, unless it was a cypher. Anything you interpret from that, is on your own. Would you say to your loved one who sent the message – "that was so cold with a period." – Weather Vane May 15 '20 at 21:13
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    @WeatherVane As I stated in the question, I believe that "Okay." has a colder and more rigid tone to it. The difference is minute yet definitely noticeable. – user385361 May 15 '20 at 21:16
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    As Barmar wrote, you are reading too much into things, including the comments. You can't unambiguously differentiate. – Weather Vane May 15 '20 at 21:54

One option is to italicize the word okay:

This happened after she told me okay.

This type of italicization is known as "using the word as a word."

If you followed British punctuation conventions, it would be clear from the outset whether the period was included in the original quoted expression, because British conventions call for putting the end-of-sentence punctuation outside the close quotation mark if the original word or phrase quoted did not end in that punctuation mark:

This happened after she told me 'Okay'.

and for putting it inside the close quotation mark if it was included in the original wording:

This happened after she told me 'Okay.'

The Oxford Guide to Style (2002) provides a fairly detailed discussion of what it calls "British practice" in section 5.13.2 ("Relative placing [of quotation marks] with other punctuation"):

Except where the matter is quoted for semantic or bibliographic scrutiny, the relationship in British practice between quotation marks and other marks of punctuation is according to the sense. While the rules are somewhat lengthy to state in full, the common-sense approach is to do nothing that changes the meaning of the quotation or renders it confusing to read.

In US practice, commas and full points are set inside the closing quotation mark regardless of whether they are part of the quoted material. The resulting ambiguity can cause editorial problems when using material from US sources in British works.

When the punctuation mark is not part of the quoted material, as in the case of single words and phrases, place it outside the closing quotation mark. Usually, only one mark of of terminal punctuation is needed. When the the quoted matter is a complete sentence or question, its terminal punctuation falls within the closing quotation mark, and is not duplicated by another mark outside the quotation mark: [examples omitted].

The only exception that Oxford identifies to the rule of not using more than one mark of terminal punctuation is "when the terminal punctuation of the quoted material and that of the main sentence serve different different functions of equal strength or importance," as in

Did he really shout 'Stop thief!'?

Unfortunately, U.S. punctuation conventions (generally speaking) are insensitive to this nuance, prescribing the same punctuation in either case:

This happened after she told me "Okay."

This isn't the case (as Oxford implies) across all U.S. disciplines; I recall from my law school days that the Harvard Blue Book was quite punctilious about putting end punctuation within the close quotation mark if it appeared there in the original content being quoted and outside if not. But for the most part, U.S. punctuation conventions are as Oxford describes them. The Chicago Manual of Style, sixteenth edition (2010) offer this comment on U.S. practice:

6.9 Periods and commas in relation to closing quotation marks. Periods an commas precede closing quotation marks, whether double or single. ... This is a traditional style, in use well before the first edition of this manual (1906). ...

In an alternative system, sometimes called British style (a described in The Oxford Style Manual; see bibliog. 1.1), single quotation marks are used, and only those punctuation points that appeared in the original material should be included within the quotation marks.

The Associated Press Stylebook (2007) extends the punctuation convention prescribed by Chicago to U.S. journalistic practice:

PLACEMENT [of quotation marks] WITH OTHER PUNCTUATION: Follow these long-established printers' rules:

—The period and the comma always go within the quotation marks.

—The dash, the semicolon, the question mark and the exclamation point go within the quotation marks when they apply to the quote matter only. They go outside when they apply to the whole sentence.

So, under the predominant the U.S. punctuation convention, writers can't easily achieve the clarity and precision available to their British counterparts. Instead, they must to live with ambiguity in these situations—or have to try to execute an end run with something like the italics maneuver noted above. Or reword to move the quotation way from the end of the sentence.

  • There are more US writers and publications, and also no such things as 'BrE' and AmE'. The only safe way to show that a quote uses a full stop is to use double punctuation: << The sign read 'This is the way.'. >> Because of different conventions and the non-incorrectness of most of them, there is probably no way to show a quote lacking a period directly. – Edwin Ashworth May 16 '20 at 15:38
  • @EdwinAshworth: Thank you for your comment. I had intended to include citations to U.S. and British style guides that endorse what I take to be the predominant U.S. and British publishing conventions on the question of relative placement of quotation marks and end punctuation—and I have done so now. Obviously, the only people who are bound by such conventions are those who try to have their work published by a publisher that follows one or another style guide. But the split in predominant convention between U.S. publishing and and British publishing is (to my mind) quite clear. – Sven Yargs May 16 '20 at 20:44
  • ...Also, I've removed the word "English" (twice) from my answer, since it seems to have presented a major distraction to the sense of the argument I was trying to make. – Sven Yargs May 16 '20 at 20:45
  • Different conventions such as these must be a disproportionately large source of ambiguities for those assuming a certain convention is holding. As per Grice, the only way to clarify for an unknown / mixed audience is to spell things out. – Edwin Ashworth May 17 '20 at 14:13

When you want to emphasize that someone used an explicit period, you can use the word "period".

This happened after she told me "Okay" – period.

This also expresses the abrupt implication. From Merriam-Webster:

used interjectionally to emphasize the finality of the preceding statement

  • "[...] without changing the structure of my sentence." If it's impossible to do so, that should be the answer. But this does not answer the question. – user385361 May 15 '20 at 21:09
  • I've come up with a new answer. – Barmar May 15 '20 at 21:41
  • I have a suspicion one could misinterpret this as an emphasis on the writer's statement rather than the quote itself. The "Okay" in it of itself isn't technically a statement of the sentence. – user385361 May 15 '20 at 22:02
  • While it could potentially be ambiguous in some cases, it's hard to see why one would emphasize the finality of this statement. – Barmar May 15 '20 at 22:21
  • If you're looking for a general solution, English is the wrong language for you. – Barmar May 15 '20 at 22:22

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