Colons before Quotations

by Craig Shrives

Using a Colon before a Quotation

Writers often ask whether they should use a comma, a colon, or nothing when introducing a quotation.

Quotations are often introduced with terms like "He said," "She whispered," and "They shouted" (the verbs in these introductions are called verbs of attribution). Such an introduction can be followed by nothing, a comma, or a colon to separate it from the quotation.

There is a lot of leniency on which punctuation to use before a quotation, especially in creative writing, and writers should choose the punctuation that gives them their desired flow of text.

The default position is use a comma, but here are some guidelines on when a colon can be used. Colons are more stark than commas, and, as such, they force a micro-pause that makes the quotation the star of the sentence.

Read more about selecting the right verb of attribution on the page about quotations.

colon before a quotation

(Guideline 1) When the introduction is an independent clause

You can use a colon before a quotation when the introduction is an independent clause (i.e., a clause that could stand alone as a sentence). For example:
  • The minister always said the same thing: "The next time I stand up here, I will have answers to these questions."
  • The largest of the aliens repeated his message: "We come in peace. Take me to your leader."
  • When I asked him, he shouted just one word: "nope!"
Often the phrase "the following" is added to make the introduction an independent clause.
  • The priestess whispered the following: "Take them to the pit."
  • When I asked him, he shouted the following: "nope!"
Writer often question whether ending the introduction with "the following" makes the clause an independent one. Grammatically, it does, and it is a useful way to justify the colon. (NB: This technique is also used for an introduction and colon that introduces a set of bullet points.)

(Guideline 2) When the quotation is at least one sentence

You can use a colon before a quotation when the quotation is at least one sentence. Having a quotation that is a full sentence (or more) is far more common than having an introduction that is an independent clause. For example:
  • The minister said: "The next time I stand up here, I will have answers to these questions."
  • (The colon is justified because the quotation is a sentence.)
  • The largest of the aliens repeated: "We come in peace. Take me to your leader."
  • (The colon is justified because the quotation is two sentences.)
  • When I asked him, he shouted: "nope!"
  • (The colon is not justified because the quotation is not a sentence.)
As a general rule, if the quotation starts with a capital letter, then a colon will be justifiable.

Do Not Use Quotation Marks for Reported Speech

Only use quotation marks to record the actual words previously said or written. For example:
  • Johnny said: "I am a good boy."
  • ("I am a good boy" are the words Johnny actually said.)
  • Johnny said that "he was a good boy."
  • (This is not a quotation. We know Johnny said "I am a good boy." This is an example of reported speech. We are reporting what he meant as opposed to quoting exactly what he said. With reported speech, there is no punctuation after the introduction (which often ends "that"), and there should be no quotation marks.)
  • Johnny said that he was a good boy.
  • (This is the correct way to write reported speech.)
You can, however, take extracts from someone's quote. For example:
  • Johnny said that he was a "good boy".
  • (In this example, the quotation marks are correct. There must be no punctuation before the quotation because there is no introduction (i.e., the quotation is not preceded immediately by a verb of attribution (e.g., "said," "argued," "claimed")
Interactive Exercise
Here are three randomly selected questions from a larger exercise, which can be edited, printed to create an exercise worksheet, or sent via email to friends or students.

See Also

Colon or comma before quotation (speech) marks? Three dots (ellipsis) in quotation (speech) marks Punctuation inside or outside quotation (speech) marks? How to use colons to extend sentences Colons in references Using colons for introductions Colons with bullet points