Thursday, February 09, 2012

Writing Tips: how to use quotation marks

Image "misunderstood" courtesy
 Few punctuation marks seem as misunderstood as quotation marks.

Few punctuation marks seem as misunderstood as quotation marks. I see so many misuses of quotation marks in fiction and non-fiction, technical reports, brochures, advertising and just about everywhere else.

The rules for quotation marks are fairly simple. Perhaps schools are not teaching how to use them. So here are the conventions that I learned in my first job as a professional editor with a major publishing company. (So, now that I mention it, I guess I didn’t learn about them in school, either.)
At least on the North American side of the Atlantic, double quotes are the default. Use them whenever you want to indicate that the words in them are someone else’s. This means:

- dialogue—in fiction, where a character is speaking or, sometimes, thinking

“Pray forgive me, Miss Manette. I break down before the knowledge of what I want to say to you. Will you hear me?” (from Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities)

- direct quote—in non-fiction, where you are repeating the words of another writer
The specification document states: “The wireless Ethernet Mesh Network will be the backbone for the entire communication system and any problems in the system design will ripple to the control system.”
Quotation marks are also used to indicate words used in an ironic, special or technical sense—in other words, where they don’t mean what they normally mean.

- technical terms: “Multipathing” occurs when radio waves emitted by a wireless transmitter travel along a different path and interfere destructively with waves traveling on a direct line-of-sight path. (Rockwell)

- local dialect or slang: Children call their underwear “gotch.”

- irony: Economic “experts” predicted a rebound in markets last year.

It’s important not to overuse quotation marks. While they can indicate slang or ironic use, you should never use them to excuse sloppy or unoriginal writing.

- Don’t do this: In today’s “challenging” economy, we all have to “think outside of the box.”
Single quotes are for use within double quotes—a quote within a quote.

- In dialogue: “So I asked him, ‘Where’s the fire?’” Steve said derisively.

- In non-fiction: The report “Clement Solutions will create a ‘procedures matrix’ that details the modules to be used in specific manufacturing applications.”

Watch out for these problems

I often see single quotation marks (‘’) used to indicate special treatment of single words or short passages in the same work that uses double marks for dialogue. It’s as if the writer thinks that the single-quotes are fine for shorter entries, but aren’t strong enough for a long string of dialogue.

That’s not the case. UK publications use single-quotes as the default, and double marks inside them. That actually seems a little more logical, but after all assigning meaning to these marks is an arbitrary exercise. The important thing is to use them consistently so that your audience understands what they mean.

Almost every word processing program has different characters for opening and closing quotation marks. They’re curved or slanted in opposite directions. Don’t just use the straight double superscript marks. As one typographer told me a long time ago, that’s a minute or inch mark. Most word processors give you the option of inserting “curly quotes,” and figure out for you which one to use (based on the presence of a space before or after). That being said, make sure that the computer is putting the appropriate mark in place. You can find the key combination to insert the appropriate one manually, as well.

A related problem is the use of the opening single quotation mark ( ‘) instead of the apostrophe (’). The apostrophe is the same shape as the closing quotation mark, but in short forms like “In ‘n’ out,” the software places the wrong one. This is a sure sign of non-professional editing.

Continuing speech

If the quoted passage contains more than one paragraph, don’t put closing quotation marks at the end of the paragraph until the entire quotation is ended. However, use opening quotation marks for each subsequent paragraph.

Put another way, if a quoted paragraph is from the same source as the preceding paragraph, and there are no words from outside the quotation in between, don’t use closing quotes to end the first paragraph, but use new opening quotes on the second (and subsequent) paragraphs. Use closing quotations only at the end of the entire quotation.

For example:

- The Minister made the following statement today:

“We remain deeply concerned that the court rejected the evidence of XX’s grave health status, and we appeal to the government of BBB on humanitarian grounds for his release.

“The Independent Commission of Inquiry recently recommended that the government take steps to ensure freedom of speech and protection from arbitrary detention.”

Combining quotation marks and other punctuation

Using quotation marks with periods, commas and other end punctuation seems to be one of the most confusing aspects of all. As long as you’re using North American conventions, follow this simple guide:

- Put periods and commas inside the quotation marks. Always.

Small beads of sweat were visible on her forehead. “I can’t sell the car. Your business is down, so is mine. There is no way I can pay.” (from Andy Holloman’s Shades of Gray)

- Use a comma for end punctuation in dialog that is followed by a phrase that identifies the speaker or source. Use a period at the end of that phrase.

“I can watch them until we find them all a home,” I answer. “I don’t know any vets, though.” (from Scott Morgan’s Short Stack)

- Always put colons and semi-colons outside the quotation marks.

The Minister said that prospects for growth “are not good”; however, she declined to offer any alternatives.
FDT identified several compatible options for “instrumentation asset management”: RAE; Parver-Angras+Bauer; Reich and Zeller; and GFY Joint Interest Group.
- Put question marks and exclamation points where they make sense. If the quoted passage is a question, put the question mark inside the quotation marks.

Who said, “I have a dream”?
“When was the last time you saw your brother, Mr. Pella?” I interjected from the curb. (from RS Guthrie’s Black Beast)

These are the conventions commonly followed in English in North America. The Brits have some different rules, notably around where to place periods and commas.

The point is, professional publications follow a set of rules consistently. If you want your writing to be viewed as professional and treated seriously, then be consistent.


  1. Thanks for breaking down quotation marks. I have officially bookmarked this post for future reference.

  2. Great article! I'm always on the lookout for posts that explain grammar rules in a simple way. Bookmarking it.

    Sometimes I think the comma or period should be outside the quotation mark, like if the word I want to highlight as ironic is at the end of a sentence. Wouldn't it make more sense to put the period outside? I'm always wondering what to do in that case. Inside or outside? I know according to the rule it should be inside, but it never seems right to me.

    1. Where the question mark goes depends on the sentence. Ask yourself this: "Is the sentence I'm quoting a question?" If the answer is "yes," then put the question mark inside.

      Logically, you should treat the period the same way, and I think the Brits do. However, that leads to some difficult choices to make. ALWAYS putting the period and comma inside is easier because it's a simple rule.

      And no, I am NOT making this up. Check any North American style manual, like Elements of Style or the Chicago Manual of Style. They're what I grew up on as a young editor.

  3. Very useful info, Scott...thank you!

  4. Okay, that's interesting - the part about the UK using double quotes inside single ones - the opposite of their use in the US. How common is that around the world?

    I know that the US is odd man out in "punctuating numbers." Most countries use the comma as a decimal, and the period for a thousands separator.

    Just one more strange fact: Romans didn't use punctuation or case or spacing. Consider the following: DEGUSTIBUSNONESTDISPUTANDUM. That would be akin to: IWENTTWOTHESTORETOOBUYTOSHOES. Fun, huh?

    1. Hi, Jack. You know how us brits like to confuse people ie, Worcester, Leicester, etc.
      Well we use points and or commas for decimal indicators. The problem is that none of us are ever consistent and that's what makes it hard - even for us.

    2. And why do you call a cake with no plums in it "plum pudding"?

    3. Dunno. Probably for the same reason that we call a napkin, a serviette. Well at least in my house - cos' we're posh. That comes from the most expensive ticket: Port out, Starboard home, from the old transatlantic cruise ships.

  5. I often see quotation marks used when someone is trying to emphasize something, and they should have used italics or underlined it. When this happens, it looks like they're being ironic, as in "air quotes."

    1. Not to be a snob, but that's not the way to use quotes. If you think about words in quotes as indicating that they're someone else's words, it makes sense.

      Even if you are just using one word in an unusual way, or to indicate jargon or slang, you're saying "I don't use this word in this way, but these other people do."

  6. I'm at home with (UK) English punctuation rules, but I'm just beginning a book which will be written for the US. Your post has helped a lot. thank you.

  7. "Nice post, Scott," he said. "As a transplanted Brit, I often find it difficult to get my periods and quotes the correct way around." He walked away from the last sentence, praying he never had to endure a period snafu...

  8. Anonymous1:54 PM

    I usually use the British rules. 'How rude of you.' she said.

    Which sometimes people feel unprofessional. =/

  9. Good info. Quotation marks is definitely confusing for some writers, especially when using single quotes. I've seen double quotes within double quotes before.

  10. I have the "?" argument with my critique group every time we meet. You are the first evidence of my being correct. Thanks so much for all of this!

    Now I have evidence that: "...?" he NOT correct. The redundancy murders the reader inside me a little every time.

    1. From a punctuation viewpoint, it IS correct, but you're right, it's redundant and awkward. Since the person being quoted is asking a question, the question mark goes inside, and the "he asked" clarifies the attribution. But the redundancy is poor. Find another way to write it, like

      Something was still bothering him. "...?"

  11. Okay I'm bookmarking this one... and will NOT put a comma in this comment for fear of placing incorrectly LOL!

  12. Anonymous9:59 PM

    I noticed that you said the quotation marks are used in dialogue when someone is speaking and sometimes when they are thinking. Could you help me with that sometimes thing. I am still having problems leaving out the marks when my character is thinking a quote to his or her self. How do you define when is the proper time for the quotation marks.

    1. While you may see quotation marks to set off thought or internal dialog in older books, today, most writers don't use quotation marks to indicate what characters are thinking. In fact, there are some style guides that forbid it.

      Quotation marks for thoughts could also confuse readers, who have come to expect that they indicate words spoken aloud.

      These rules apply better to fiction. In technical writing, however, quotation marks should be used to indicate any words that are not the author's. However, it's hard to think of many places where thoughts would come into a technical document.

  13. That is great! The usage that always confused me is the second example from the Combining quotation marks and other punctuation, section.

    Now I know the correct way!

    Many thanks

  14. Anonymous7:00 AM

    Hi there. In Australia we officially use the UK standards but because of so much American influence the entire 23 million of us don't really know what we're doing! Speaking for myself of course.
    However, I might disagree with your Scott Morgan example:

    “I can watch them until we find them all a home,” I answer. “I don’t know any vets, though.” (from Scott Morgan’s Short Stack)

    This could be the UK way but I would place the comma after home on the other side of the double close quote because the pause is part of the sentence containing the quote. If we were to put the entire quote together, “I can watch them until we find them all a home. I don’t know any vets, though.” we can see there are two sentences, so the comma after home within the quotes is actually incorrect. IMHO.
    Even though the fist quote is a complete sentence it would be too cumbersome to put the period in.

    “I can watch them until we find them all a home.”, I answer. “I don’t know any vets, though.”

    So I'd leave it out:

    “I can watch them until we find them all a home”, I answer. “I don’t know any vets, though.”

    Again, that's just me. And I would try to do that consistently.
    It's worth noting that the end of the last sentence quoted has no words following outside the quote so the end of the quoted sentence is marked with a period within the quote.