Comma or Colon before a Quotation?

by Craig Shrives

Quotation Marks to Show the Exact Words

Quotation marks are used to show words previously spoken or written. For example:
  • Anna looked up and said, "It's true. Her scatty dog ate the office key."
  • (The words within the quotation marks are the exact words that Anna said.)
  • Her performance proved beyond all doubt that she was "simply the best."
  • (The words "simply the best" are a quote from a well-known song. They are the exact words in the song.)
  • The sign clearly states, "Thieves will be prosecuted."
  • (These are the actual words on the sign.)

Comma or a Colon before a Quotation?

When introducing a quotation with words like "He said," "She whispered," "It stated," or "He said the following," you have to decide whether to follow the introduction with a comma, a colon, or nothing.

In creative writing especially, writers are free to choose to achieve their desired flow of text. In more formal writing, however, punctuation is expected after an introduction for a quotation. The rules are quite lax. Below is some general guidance:

comm, colon, or nothing before a quotation

(Rule 1) Use a colon if the introduction is an independent clause.

You should opt for a colon if the introduction is an independent clause (i.e., a clause that could stand alone as a sentence), and you should start the quotation with a capital letter. For example:
  • The guides always gave the same advice: "Leave them alone, and they will leave you alone."
  • (Here, "The guides always gave the same advice" is an independent clause.)

(Rule 2) You can use a colon if the quotation is an independent clause.

You could opt for a colon if the quotation itself is an independent clause, especially if you intend to start it with a capital letter. For example:
  • The prisoner uttered: "Leave me alone."
  • (You could also use a comma here.)

(Rule 3) Use a comma if the introduction is not an independent clause.

You should opt for a comma if the introduction is not an independent clause. For example:
  • She said, "tomorrow, definitely tomorrow."
  • (You should use a comma here as neither the introduction nor the quotation is an independent clause.)
  • Granddad looked at me over the top of his glasses and said, "I've seen it all and done it all. I just don't remember any of it."
  • (You could also use a colon here.)

(Rule 4) You can only use a comma (i.e., not a colon) after a quotation.

There is only a choice between a comma and a colon when the quotation is being introduced. Only a comma can be used after a quotation. For example:
  • Paul looked over the hedge and shouted: "You can keep half of the strawberries you pick."
  • (Here, a colon has been selected because the quotation is an independent clause. A comma could have been used too.)
  • "You can keep half of the strawberries you pick," shouted Paul, looking over the hedge.
  • (In this example, a colon is not an option.)
In the last example, the comma after "pick" is shown inside the quotation mark. This is the most common convention in the US. Most writers in the UK would place the comma outside the quotation. This is a hotly discussed topic among grammarians. (The best advice is to adopt whatever practice your national newspapers follow.)

Read more about punctuation inside or outside quotation marks.

More about the Punctuation before Quotation

Using Nothing before a Quotation

Quite often quotations are used without introductions like "He asked," "She yelled," and "They wrote." (These are called "verbs of attribution.") In those cases, you cannot use punctuation to introduce the quotation. For example:
  • I believe there really is "no place like home."
  • I believe there really is, "no place like home."
Here is another example:
  • If this is the "best skiing resort in France," I would hate to see the worst.
  • If this is the, "best skiing resort in France," I would hate to see the worst.

Use "The Following" to Force a Colon

Many writers use the words "the following" to create an independent clause in order to justify a colon. For example:
  • She said the following: "Janet, erratic; James, bossy; and Tony, meek."
  • (With this version, no one can contest the colon. The introduction is an independent clause. It might seem like it's unfinished, but adding "the following" makes it an independent clause from a grammatical perspective. It justifies the colon.)
  • She said: "Janet, erratic; James, bossy; and Tony, meek." (With this version, the colon cannot be justified.)
Read more about using "the following" to justify a colon.

Not a Hard and Fast Rule

Many writers do not adhere to the guidelines regarding the use of commas and colons with quotations. Nowadays, it is acceptable to introduce a quotation with a comma, a colon, or nothing. In modern writing, the choice of punctuation depends largely on the desired flow of the text (i.e., how much the writer wants the reader to pause).

The strongest rule is the following one: Use a colon after an introduction that is an independent clause.

Beware Reported Speech

Quotation marks are not used for reported speech. (Reported speech is usually preceded by the word "that.") Remember that only use quotation marks for actual quotes of speech or writing. Look at these similar examples:
  • The secretary said, "The phones are dead."
  • (These are the exact words the secretary said.)
  • The secretary said that the phones were dead.
  • (This is an example of reported speech.)
  • The secretary said that "the phones were dead."
  • (Do not use quotation marks for reported speech.)
Look at this though:
  • The secretary said that the phones were "dead."
  • (This is also an example of reported speech. This time, however, the quotation marks are okay because the secretary used the word "dead.")
Here is another example:
  • Edmund said, "I am a good boy."
  • Edmund said that "he was a good boy".
  • (This is reported speech. Edmund actually said, "I am a good boy." The quotation marks are wrong.)
  • Edmund said that he was a good boy.
  • Edmund said that he was a "good boy."
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

Using commas (a summary) Take our commas test Three dots (ellipsis) in quotation (speech) marks Punctuation inside or outside quotation (speech) marks? (the US and UK conventions)
Quotation (speech) marks for ships, plays, books, etc. Double or single quotation (speech) marks? Quotation (speech) marks meaning alleged or so-called