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Quotation marks

In English, there are two main styles of quotation marks (which are also called inverted commas and quotes). American writers routinely use double quotation marks, “which are pictured to the left and look like the marks around this clause.” Writers in the U.K., Australia, etc. may use either single or double quotation marks, with the former typical of academic publications especially and the latter commonly found in online media. The single quotes ‘look like the marks around this phrase.’

Uses of quotation marks

Quotation marks have five main uses.

1. Use quotation marks when quoting someone—for example:

Ralph asked, “Should we build a fire?”

2. Use quotation marks when referring to a word as a word:

I asked what he meant by the word “built.”

3. Use quotation marks when you want to imply that the quoted word or phrase is dubious:

You could listen to the “experts,” or you could just do what makes sense.

4. Use them when you’re coining a new word or phrase, but only on the first use:

Despite obvious appeal, Lululemon is what I like to call a “cult stock.” [The Street]

5. Use quotation marks around the titles of articles, poems, short stories, songs, and TV shows. Larger works are italicized (as is Harmonium, the book of poems by Wallace Stevens, in the following quote).

This poem, together with the early “Sunday Morning” and “Le Monocle de Mon Oncle,” proved key to Stevens’s volume Harmonium when it was published in 1923. [Poetry Foundation]

Quotes within quotes

For a quote within a larger quote, American writers use single quotation marks inside double marks—for example:

He said, “My favorite poem is ‘Sunday Morning’ by Wallace Stevens.”

In British and Australian English, it’s the opposite—for example:

He said, ‘My favorite poem is “Sunday morning” by Wallace Stevens.’

For quotes within quotes within quotes, etc., keep alternating single and double.

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Punctuation inside or outside quotation marks?

In American English, most writers place periods and commas inside quotation marks regardless of the period’s or comma‘s relationship to what’s being quoted—for example:

My favorite poem is “Sunday Morning.”

In British and Australian English, it’s the opposite:

My favorite poem is ‘Sunday Morning’.

But all standards agree in their treatment of question marks and exclamation points with quotation marks.  If the mark is part of what’s being quoted, it goes inside the quotation marks:

She asked, “Have you ever been to Paris?”

If it’s not part of what’s being quoted, it goes outside the quotation marks:

Have you ever read “Sunday morning”?

Semicolons and colons go outside quotation marks—for example:

There are three things I love about “Sunday Morning”: its images, its sound, and its emotion.

Unnecessary quotation marks

The unnecessary use of quotation marks is a sign of amateurish writing. In business writing and in poorly written web articles, some writers use quotation marks to give emphasis—for example:

Most people already know full well that proper diet and exercise is the way to lose weight, and yet so many find themselves helpless to do what they know they “should” be doing. [ArticlesBase (article now offline)]

Some writers put unnecessary quotation marks around expressions or common phrases—for example:

Be patient and “roll with the punches.” [EZine Articles (article now offline)]

When change comes it is best if we “get with the program”. [iSnare]

And some writers use quotation marks for phrasal adjectives that should be hyphenated—for example:

This “back to the basics” [back-to-the-basics] approach resonated with fans and critics alike … [Pop Matters]

Fans of the “everything and kitchen sink” [everything-and-kitchen-sink] approach will love this offering from Panasonic. [Hub Pages]

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Comments

  1. Question: In a sentence made up of a series of quotes, each with its own punctuation mark at the end (say, a question mark), how are the quotes separated from each other without having multiple punctuation marks? As in “…?”, “…!,” and “…?” (Noting the commas to separate–shown a couple of ways. There has to be a separation, can’t just let them go all into one, but putting the commas (or even semicolons) in looks odd–even Spell Check rejects it.

    • That is a good question, and one we’ve never seen answered. Unfortunately, none of the reference books we have on hand address this.

      We would do it like this: “What is your name?,” “What is your favorite color?,” “Do you have any pets?,” etc.

      Of course, in British English, it would be: “What is your name?”, “What is your favourite colour?”, “Do you have any pets?”, etc.

      It looks ugly, but there’s no other good way to do it that we can think of. Perhaps someone else will come along and offer a better answer.

  2. Question: If you are writing a business report and you are quoting someone, is it more proper to
    separate the quotation in a new paragraph or to keep it in the paragraph it follows the context?

    According to writing conventions, when a new speaker enters dialogue, a new paragraph begins. Should the same apply here as there is a change from the narrator of the report to an individual being quoted?

    ie: Mr. Smith owns shares in a number of companies. Some of these are shell companies. “Mr. Smith is a dubious figure. He avoids paying taxes through off shore companies,” Mr. X stated.

    or

    Mr. Smith owns shares in a number of companies. Some of these are shell companies.

    “Mr. Smith is a dubious figure. He avoids paying taxes through off shore companies,” Mr. X stated.

    • I think you should use first option, but change it in a safer version:
      Mr. Smith owns shares in a number of companies. Some of these are shell companies. Mr. X stated: “Mr. Smith….”

  3. Poacher says:

    Regarding the British method you describe I believe you are incorrect. Both my wife (who is Dutch) and myself (British) have been taught the double quotation mark is used when quoting something that was spoken. The single quotation marks are used when quoting something written.

  4. What is your view of the proper use of quotation marks in parentheticals showing acronyms – for instance, should it be “the Department of Housing and Urban Development (‘HUD’)” or “the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)” ?

  5. If a speaker is saying something, there is an end quotation mark, and another speaker continues talking without any text in between, should that second paragraph ever start with a quotation mark? I would have thought so, but I’ve seen many well-edited books that do this (although it’s not consistent). For example, on page 186 of the Prisoner of Azkaban:
    Lupin sighed.
    “They planted the Whomping WIllow the same year I arrived at Hogwarts. People used to play a game, trying to get near enough to touch the trunk. In the end, a boy called Davey Gudgeon nearly lost an eye, and we were forbidden to go near it. No broomstick would have a chance. [<- no quotation mark]

    "Did you hear about the dementors too?" said Harry with difficulty.

    Is that correct, and it's just a matter of style, is there some other rule that should be taken into account, or is it just a typo?

  6. If a speaker is saying something, there is an end quotation mark, and another speaker continues talking without any text in between, should that first paragraph ever not end with a quotation mark? I would have thought so, but I’ve seen many well-edited books that do this (although it’s not consistent). For example, on page 186 of the Prisoner of Azkaban:
    Lupin sighed.
    “They planted the Whomping WIllow the same year I arrived at Hogwarts. People used to play a game, trying to get near enough to touch the trunk. In the end, a boy called Davey Gudgeon nearly lost an eye, and we were forbidden to go near it. No broomstick would have a chance. [<- no quotation mark]

    "Did you hear about the dementors too?" said Harry with difficulty.

    Is that correct, and it's just a matter of style, is there some other rule that should be taken into account, or is it just a typo?

  7. My question: If I am writing about an article or story’s purpose (for example), where do I put the ‘s to show ownership?

  8. Murray Jorgensen says:

    In ‘know they “should” be doing’ the quotes are there not to emphasize ‘should’ but rather as ‘scare quotes’ expressing doubt about the moral force of this particular ‘should’.

  9. Where does Canadian English fit? Usually we follow British, but occasionally American…

    • Dr Richard says:

      Ha! Wonderful question, Catherine, a month ago. Canadian grammar, in both spoken and written language, is lost on occasion in its versimilitude to the British English language. Canadian English fits in its own very special niche. The occasions when American English encroaches on the verity and accuracy of the English language (the “Queen’s English”) are so very frequent and equally intolerable, the American niche is not a position to which any Canadian person should aspire!
      Yours in sententious aphorism,
      X

  10. Mark White says:

    I just dropped by to say thank you, Arkansas Razorbacks!

    Question: would the word “say” have a comma and “thank you” be in quotes?

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