07/19/2013 04:29 pm ET Updated Oct 04, 2016

Commas, Periods, and Quotation Marks

Do you know someone who is working on essays for college applications -- perhaps a member of your family? Or you may know a young man or woman who is completing applications for that first full-time job after graduating from college. Or how about that man or woman who is being considered for a promotion, or the seasoned business executive who is responsible for preparing executive summaries? In some of these situations correct grammar is an absolute necessity; in others, using correct written grammar will definitely give you a leg up.

In my book, The Big Ten of Grammar, I deal with what, through research, I believe are the ten most frequent grammatical errors that people make on a pretty regular basis. Without question, the most common grammatical error many of us make when writing is getting mixed up with whether commas and periods go before or after quotation marks.

There are three basic rules you need to remember when using quotation marks with other forms of punctuation. There are absolutely no exceptions to these three rules in American English.

• Commas or periods always precede closing quotation marks of quoted material. Two examples: (1) There are no "ifs," "ands," or "buts" about it. (2) He said "yes," and she said "no."
• Colons and semicolons always follow closing quotation marks of quoted material. Two examples: (1) He said "no"; she said "yes"; and some said neither "yes" nor "no." (2) Some people call themselves "Democrats"; some call themselves "Republicans"; and some call themselves "Independents."
• Question marks always follow closing quotation marks unless the question mark belongs to the material being quoted, in which case the question mark precedes the closing quotation marks. Two examples: (1) Did she say, "How many people are here"? (The entire sentence is a question, so the question mark goes after the quotation marks.) (2) She said, "How many people are here?" (Unlike the previous example, the entire sentence is not a question. Only the quoted material is a question, so the question mark belongs only to the quote and must remain within the quotation marks.) Exclamation marks follow the same rule as question marks.

If you follow these three rules, you will always be correct when using quotation marks with other forms of punctuation.

You may ask, "Does it really matter that much if I use correct grammar?" The answer is a resounding "yes." Let's consider some of the ways.

Let's start with college applications. Today's application forms, with their required essays, are almost entirely online. What you write and how you write determines, to a considerable degree, whether or not you will be accepted. Correct grammar counts -- big time!

Unemployment is at a high rate, and the trend seems to be downsizing the workforce -- using technology more than people. When being considered for a job or for a promotion or for just keeping your present job, knowing and using correct grammar -- verbal and written -- can make the difference. And the trend is definitely toward communication via the Internet, with less and less communication by the spoken word. Those who have good written English skills are definitely going to be in a favored position.

There is also an emphasis on "global." American companies are having to compete with companies from all over the world. And this is also true of the workforce -- we are seeing more and more jobs being outsourced to other countries. Although people who were reared in another country may have trouble pronouncing English, many of them have studied English since they were young children. They not only know the rules of English grammar, they follow them.

There was a time when products manufactured in the United States had little competition. Not so anymore! Just try, for example, to buy a computer or a TV that was manufactured in the United States. And what about the car industry? This past week, Detroit, the once-upon-a-time capital of the car industry, had to declare bankruptcy. The United States is no longer the baron of the international automobile industry. And once again we see an industry that is relying less and less on people and more and more on electronics -- on robots. Knowing and using correct written grammar is a must.

Or fast forward a generation or two and consider everyday life in the United States. If we pay little attention to English grammar, what will happen with such things as police reports or legal documents -- leases, rules and guidelines of employment, contracts, lawyers' briefs, and judges' decisions? Or what will happen when union leaders and company representatives or school boards meet to negotiate, write, and approve new contracts? And will our military leaders be able to formulate and communicate clear and precise orders for our armed forces?

And what about international affairs? Being able to communicate clearly is an absolute necessity. English is still the most used language for international communication. Yes, using correct grammar, especially correct written grammar, is important.

Recently I saw a funny ad for T-shirts that so clearly documents the importance of knowing where the commas go. On the front of the T-shirts, there are two lines of large letters and one line of small ones. The top line reads, "Let's eat Grandma." The second line reads, "Let's eat, Grandma." The third line reads, "Commas save lives." (Catalog Classics, 2012, back cover)

There are certainly many rules of American English grammar that are important, but these three -- the ones that dictate how quotation marks should be used with other punctuation marks -- are at the very top of the list. And it's so easy -- just three rules to remember!

If you want to keep up with this changing world we currently live in, knowing and using good grammar -- the spoken and the written -- is more than important; it is crucial.