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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.
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:Combining quotation marks and other punctuation
- 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.”
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.