Quotation (speech) marks for quotes of speech or writing.

The Quick Answer
Quotation marks are used to show the actual words spoken or written. For example:
  • She said, "I love cake."
When the word that is used to introduce an idea which has been said or written, it is probably an example of reported speech. When this happens, you should not use quotation marks. For example:
  • She said that she loved cake.
  • She said that "she loved cake."
If you're unsure whether to precede a quotation with a nothing, a comma, or a colon, then use a comma for short quotations of fewer than seven words and use a colon for longer quotations. This is just a helpful guideline not a rule.

Quotation Marks to Show the Exact Words

Quotation marks can be used to show the actual words spoken or written.

  • 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.)
  • The sign clearly states, "Thieves will be prosecuted."
  • (These are the actual words that are on the sign.)

Comma or Colon?

When introducing a quotation with words like He said, She whispered, It stated, etc., you can precede the quotation with a comma, a colon or nothing. It is the author's choice which to use, but if you would like a guideline, then use commas for quotations that comprise fewer than 7 words and use colons for longer quotations.

  • The prisoner uttered, "Leave me alone." 
  • (fewer than 7 words – use a comma)
  • The minister shouted: "Do not worry. The next time I stand up here, I will have answers to these questions."
  • (7 words or more - use a colon)
  • 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."
  • (more than six words - use a colon)

Comma after the 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.

  • Paul looked over the hedge and shouted: "You can keep half of the strawberries you pick."
  • (colon selected)
  • "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 this example, the comma after pick is shown inside the quotation mark. This is the standard convention in the US. In the UK, the comma would be outside the quotation mark. The best advice to adopt whatever practice your national newspapers follow. There is more on punctuation inside or outside quotation marks here.)

See Also

Three dots (ellipsis) in quotation (speech) marks Punctuation inside or outside quotation (speech) marks? (It depends whether you're following US or UK conventions.)
Quotation (speech) marks for ships, plays, books, etc. Double or single quotation (speech) marks? Quotation (speech) marks meaning alleged or so-called