Colons before Quotations
Using a Colon before a QuotationWriters 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.
(Guideline 1) When the introduction is an independent clauseYou 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!"
- The priestess whispered the following: "Take them to the pit."
- When I asked him, he shouted the following: "nope!"
(Guideline 2) When the quotation is at least one sentenceYou 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.)
Do Not Use Quotation Marks for Reported SpeechOnly 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.)
- 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")