Semicolons inside or outside of quotation marks

Just a simple comment, not sure whether this has been brought up:

In my (depressingly long) American English professional typographic and editorial experience, semicolons are generally always placed outisde of quotation marks. This is the case for every type of publication work that I have encountered (AP, NYT, UChicago, APA, ACM, and many more named and unnamed). I have not seen a style that endorses semicolons inside quotation marks. However, I’ve noticed that they are regularly inside quotation marks on this site. Any thoughts?

The best explanation that punctuation goes inside in most cases in English typography is that it keeps the gap between quotation marks more uniform. Whether this is the actual reason has never been certain.


Bullhead idiosyncrasy. I recall I was taught to do it that way in 8th grade or so. Frankly I like the look of it better; it makes for a cleaner page if all the clutter stays inside the quotation marks, especially when I’m often jumping in and put of them in sequences. In a close call between clarity (to me) and stylistic precision, I tend to go with clarity. It’s probably also true that there is no general rule I could give that I haven’t broken somewhere on the site.


Actually it almost makes more sense: semicolons set off longer phrases, so it’s probably less typographically annoying than commas set in. Thankfully, it’s usually a rare situation – except on etymonline :). Still, a global search and replace . . . (likely over a million?). No, it’s not on the table.

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im nott sure about what your saying

A bulk data fix I expect would not recognize text in etymonline quoted from another source (and thus presented in that source’s punctuation style), in which case to conform it would be error. Such things require a human eye. [Mass deabbreviate “L.” into “Latin” and then find your site saying “scientology” was coined by “Latin Ron Hubbard”]. I begin to perversely cherish the inconsistency. Machines normalize what deviates. Humans contain multitudes and shouldn’t be in such a hurry about it. ChatGPT can give you a punctuationally perfect paragraph packed with damned lies.

Well said. I’m reminded of a recent e-chat with a decorated professor of design, T.C., Ph.D. I was asking about hiring at his department, trying to be very affable. He kept jabbing at me, saying I didn’t understand the first thing about the definition of design, and I was trying to respond good-naturedly and not jab back: After a while, it went something like this:

Me: Well, yes but I’m not sure Herbert Simon would agree.
He: On the contrary, Simon was quite clear that design is not about solving problems.
He: Quote: “Cyberneticist and philosopher Herbert Simon coined the term ‘wicked problems’ to describe designs that defy normal solutions. According to Simon, wicked problems: . . .” (very long, stock explanation)
(really very long)
(not bad reading, either)
Me: Herbert Simon didn’t coin the term ‘wicked problems’.
Me: . . . In fact, it probably wasn’t even Horst Rittel, even though most people credit him.
He: Why did you call me?
Me: Wait. When you’re wrong, you get to change the subject?
He: That’s obnoxious.
Me: Your tone has been combative from the start. You deserved it.
He: I got that from ChatGPT.
Me: That was obvious. Anyway, West Churchman most likely coined the term, very casually in a conversation with Rittel. Almost nobody on Earth knows this. It was proposed, with good support, in an unpublished paper by one of Rittel’s longtime students. I got it from in-depth, first-person interviews with Churchman’s and Rittel’s other students from the relevant period.
He: I heard that too.
He: . . . In a conversation with Nigel Cross.

Of course that was just hot air. He had no way to recover and had to start being a little nicer at that point. I soon heard back from the dean.

Moral: If your mother tells you she loves you, check it out. (attributed to A.A. Dornfeld)


“If your mother says she loves you, check it out” was one of the canons of newspaper newsrooms when I started in them. Timeless advice.

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It’s attributed to Chicago City News Bureau editors, often to Arnold “Dorny” Dornfeld. My father was one of his editors in the '50s, so as children (and later editors ourselves) we heard it early and often.


I think there are two “camps” on this: the “cosmetics is all that matters in the world” camp and the “pedantic logic is smarter than you” camp. (I also think that if we polarize the camps’ names from the outset, we can more easily laugh at the fact that we belong to one of them.)

A member of the PLISTY faction :face_with_peeking_eye: