Columns > Published on August 19th, 2014

Punctuation Pairs: How To Combine Punctuation

As if the rules of punctuation weren’t confusing enough, what do you do when you have more than one punctuation mark to contend with?

Though our proverbial stodgy old English professors might beg to differ, the rules of punctuation are flexible. They depend mostly on context and intended meaning. This is especially true when combining punctuation marks.

This article will cover some of the more common punctuation pairs and how to use them.


The exclamation mark haters would most certainly oppose even the mere mention of dual exclamation marks, but two, three, or ten exclamation marks in a row is a common occurrence. It’s not wrong, per se. Just a little bit over the top, as if you are trying to make an exclamatory remark reverberate on the page for a few extra pulses. Maybe multiple marks become appropriate when you are screaming into a canyon or similarly echo-producing environment.

!? or ?!

Also abhorrent to grammatical purists, using the exclamation/question mark combo. This is considered unnecessary. Use one or the other, they say. Well, that’s all well and good, but we creative types like to be rebellious. So in that case, you would use whichever mark is the most appropriate and represents the primary sentiment of the sentence. If the exclaimed question is more a rhetorical sentiment, use the exclamation mark first:

  • How are we ever going to finish all those pies before the bake sale!?
  • You’re wearing THAT to work!?

If the exclaimed question really is a question, then use the question mark first:

  • Can you please stop playing your bagpipes at 3 a.m.?!
  • Where did you put my car keys this time?!

If you are, however, a purist, you can take your cues from the Chicago Manual of Style (16th Edition) and only use the combination when they are being used for different purposes and the basic rules of sentence punctuation need to apply.

  • Mama! Read me Mr. Brown Can Moo, Can You?!
  • My favorite book ever is Where’s My Cow?!
  • Who just yelled, “Viva La Revolucion!”?

?. or !.

According to the CMOS, periods never appear next to question marks or exclamation marks because the question and exclamation marks convey a stronger sentiment, therefore rendering the period unnecessary. Unlike in the examples above, even if the sentence ends with a title that uses either the exclamation mark or the question mark, the period is not used.

?, or !,

Similar to the rule above, commas are omitted when either an exclamation mark or question mark appear where a comma should go.

  • “Are you sure you want to take this road?” asked Marta.

Unless, as before, the exclamation or question mark appears in a title, in which case, the comma should be used as normal.

  • My favorite Beatles albums are Help!, Hard Day’s Night, and Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

‘ with . ! ? , : ;

If you have an apostrophe in a sentences, you will still always use the appropriate punctuation for the sentence because the apostrophe is considered to be part of the word.

  • The blue house on the end of the street was the Robinsons’.
  • Are you sure that car is the Jones’?
  • Put that down! That sweater is Tess’!

“ ‘ ‘  “

When you are nesting a quoted section within another quoted section, you use double quotation marks for the main quote and singles for the quote-within-a-quote.

  • “Hey Frank, just in case you didn’t hear us the first time, we said, ‘Get Lost!’”
  • “Under the sink in the kitchen, you will find what my dad calls ‘the food recycle.’”

,” or :”

When writing dialogue, a comma is used after the word said, asked, yelled, whispered, or other words that describe the speech and just before the opening double quotation mark.

  • When mom surveyed the disaster that was my bedroom, she said, “It looks as if it’s been lived in by quorum of baboons.”

You can use a colon before a quoted section, also, but typically only after a formal introductory phrase like thus or as follows.

  • When mom surveyed the disaster that was my bedroom, she described it thus: “It looks as if it’s been lived in by quorum of baboons.”

?” !” or “! “?

This rule can be confusing to some, but it makes sense when you think about it. A question mark or a quotation mark should only appear inside quotation marks when it is part of the quoted section.

  • As Fido ran down the street with his lease in his jaws, Fanny raced after him yelling, “Heel, Fido, heel!”
  • Can you believe that this new smart phone is supposedly “waterproof to 100 feet”?

.) ,) !) ?) or ). ), )! )?

Similar to the rule above, a period, comma, exclamation mark, or question mark should be placed inside parentheses or brackets only when it is part of the parenthetical or bracketed material. If it is part of the greater sentence, then it should be placed after the parenthesis or bracket.

  • He rifled in his overfilled messenger bag for his keys for nearly an hour (promising himself to clean it out as soon as he got into the house).
  • Nora loves the new museum. (She’s visited it 16 times during the opening week.)
  • The cat leapt onto window sill (assuming it was closed), and was surprised to find itself suddenly out in the front yard.

That said, it’s extremely rare that a comma could ever have grammatical reason to appear within a parenthetical section unless it’s part of what CMOS calls “an editorial interpolation.” CMOS gives the following example:

  • “The contents of the vault included fennel seeds, tweezers, [straight-edged razors,] and empty Coca-Cola cans.”

Etc., etc. or other abbreviations

If the abbreviation appears at the end of a clause that requires a comma, both the period that denotes the abbreviation and the comma are used. If it appears at the end of a sentence, a second period is not necessary.

  • Please go to the store and get taco fixings such as cheese, tomatoes, ground beef, etc., and bring them to the party on Saturday.
  • Grandma’s attic was full of hats, fur coats, vintage purses, costume jewelry, etc.


There are certainly other situations where two punctuation marks might appear side-by-side. In almost all cases, context should be considered first. I was always told this rule or that, but in the end I learned that it really depends. The punctuation marks must appear in the order of importance and next to the section that they most modify. It's certainly not as cut and dry as we'd like, but it also allows for much more flexibility. 

About the author

Taylor Houston is a genuine Word Nerd living in Portland, OR where she works as a technical writer for an engineering firm and volunteers on the planning committee for Wordstock, a local organization dedicated to writing education.

She holds a degree in Creative Writing and Spanish from Hamilton College in Clinton, NY. In the English graduate program at Penn State, she taught college composition courses and hosted a poetry club for a group of high school writers.

While living in Seattle, Taylor started and taught a free writing class called Writer’s Cramp (see the website). She has also taught middle school Language Arts & Spanish, tutored college students, and mentored at several Seattle writing establishments such as Richard Hugo House. She’s presented on panels at Associated Writing Programs Conference and the Pennsylvania College English Conference and led writing groups in New York, Pennsylvania, and Colorado for writers of all ages & abilities. She loves to read, write, teach & debate the Oxford Comma with anyone who will stand still long enough.

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