Spiffing y'all up, one typo at a time
If you’re one of my McIver cousins, reading the title of this post will instantly bring back memories of our mamaw. For the rest of you, I hope it whets your appetite for a post about where to put question marks/exclamation points relative to ending quotation marks. (Is that too much to hope for?) You’re both in luck!
The question in the name of this post is something my mamaw said to us a lot. Sometimes it was a question; other times it was a command to pick one or the other. She fussed at us plenty when we were little, but, to be fair, there were six grandkids with a span of only 8 years between the oldest and the youngest.
Born Agnes Frances Patterson, she was one of 12 children from a big Catholic family. She had a nice, thick Arkansas accent—well, to this city grandkid she did. As family lore has it, she was so small when she was born, she spent weeks in a cracker box with a light bulb (for an incubator) and her mother’s wedding ring fit around her wrist. She was known for her wonderful cinnamon rolls (no comment from you, Dubya) and her fried pies and, in her later years, she made peach and plum “wine.”
Mamaw and Papaw lived in a small house with a big porch that had TWO porch swings. (We got fussed at a lot for swinging too high in them.) I spent a lot of time on that porch while we as a family all worked together making homemade ice cream. It took that many people because we hand-cranked it. That’s hard work, y’all. So is shelling purple-hull peas, another regular front-porch activity.
Invariably, we grandkids would get hot. Or bored. Or we’d need to wash the purple off our pea-stained fingers. And that’s when the banging of the front door—and Mamaw’s fussing—began.
Two things she said to/hollered at us a lot: “In or out? Do you wanna be in or out?” and “Be still!” (“Be still” meant “Be quiet” in my mamaw’s lingo.) And these phrases are gonna come in handy now as we talk about some punctuation! (Thanks for being patient with my walk down memory lane.)
So, imagine now that you’re writing a sentence that ends with a quotation. And either the sentence or the quotation or both need something other than a period at the end. The first thing you need to decide is if the special punctuation (question mark or exclamation point) belongs to the quoted material OR to the sentence as a whole . . .
Scenario No. 1
The question mark or exclamation point belongs to the quoted material:
Keep it inside the quotation marks!
My mamaw always asked, “Do you wanna be in or out?”
She also often hollered, “Be still!”
Scenario No. 2
The question mark or exclamation point belongs to the sentence as a whole:
Put it outside!
Why did everyone say, “Agnes makes yummy fried pies”?
Stop saying “Your pea-picking fingers are purple”!
Scenario No. 3
The quoted material and the sentence as a whole are BOTH questions OR they are BOTH exclamations:
Use the one that comes first, which means keep it inside.
It made us crazy when she hollered, “Don’t swing so high!”
How did she know to ask, “How many fried pies have you already eaten?”
Scenario No. 4
What happens when you have a quoted exclamation at the end of a question? Or a quoted question at the end of an exclamation? Pick the stronger punctuation.
Who yelled, “Dang, this peach moonshine is strong!”
How I’d love to see my mamaw again and ask, “When will the cinnamon rolls be ready”!
Whew. This stuff is hard. If only I could sit on Mamaw’s porch swing with a mason jar of peach “wine” and a mess of peas right now . . .
Another Mamaw-ism: Well, the very idy! (Use it to express astonishment or amazement. Try working it into a conversation today!)