Using Quotation Marks

by Craig Shrives

Using Quotation Marks

Quotation marks ("") have four uses:

(1) To identify previously spoken or written words.
  • Groucho Marx said: "Either he's dead or my watch has stopped." correct tick
(2) To highlight the name of things like ships, books, and plays.
  • When the "Herald of Free Enterprise" left the port with her bow-door open, the sea flooded her decks almost instantly. Within minutes, she was lying on her side in shallow water. correct tick
(3) To signify so-called or alleged.
  • When the boss left, Peter's "mentor" took off his uniform and rushed back to the pub. correct tick
(4) To show that a word refers to the word itself not the word's meaning.
  • "Dogs" is plural. correct tick
Quotation marks are also known as speech marks, quotes, and inverted commas.

(1) Using Quotation Marks to Identify Previously Spoken or Written Words

using quotation marks
Here are some examples of quotation marks used to identify previously spoken or written words.
  • George Bernard Shaw said: "When a thing is funny, search it carefully for a hidden truth." correct tick
  • (When a quotation is introduced with words like "He said" (called words of attribution), it is usual to precede the quotation with a comma or a colon.)
  • Your uncle's observation wasn't meant to be just funny. Take Shaw's advice and "search it carefully for a hidden truth." correct tick
  • (When there are no words of attribution, do not use a comma or a colon.)

(2) Using Quotation Marks to Highlight the Name of Things Like Ships, Books, and Plays

using quotation marks for the names of ships or plays
Here are some examples of quotation marks used to highlight the names of things like ships, planes, books, and plays.
  • "Britannic", which was bigger than its sister ship "Titanic," was sunk in 1916 after a mine-strike. correct tick
  • "Southern Stars" was Jones's account of the trek. correct tick
  • (The quotation marks aid reading because Stars is a plural word and was is singular.) correct tick
  • Howard Hughes hated the name "Spruce Goose" for his flying boat, which was made of birch. correct tick
  • (The quotation marks quote journalists, signify so-called, and highlight the plane's name.)

    (3) Using Quotation Marks to Signify So-Called or Alleged

    using quotation marks to denote so-called or alleged
    Here are some examples of quotation marks used to signify irony (in the form of sarcasm) or so-called or alleged.
    • My "mates" drove off with my clothes. correct tick
    • Using his father's equipment, Alexander found over 50,000 bacteria on a "clean" chopping board. correct tick
    • His "wife" arrived 2 hours after Mr. Becket checked in. correct tick
    • (Sometimes, quotation marks perform two roles. Here, they signify so-called or alleged, but they also suggest that Mr. Becket himself described the lady as his wife.)
    Quotation marks are also used to recognize that a word is not being used in its literal sense.
    • Oh no, I've dropped another. These eggs "know" when you're about to crack them. correct tick
    • (The eggs don't know. Here, the quotation marks show that "know" is not being used in its literal sense.)
    Read more about quotation marks to denote alleged or so-called

    (4) Using Quotation Marks to Show a Word Refers to the Word Itself

    using quotation marks to refer to a word
    Here are some examples of quotation marks used to show that a word is not being used for its meaning. (This is more commonly done using italics.)
    • "It's" is a contraction of "it is" or "it has". It's got no other uses. correct tick
    • (In the first sentence, It's is not being used for its meaning. We're discussing it. In the second, the It's is being used for its meaning.)
    • If you apply the Latin rule for forming a plural, then the plural of "octopus" is "octopi." However, "octopus" stems from Greek not Latin. If you apply the Greek rule, it's "octopodes," but even a Greek wouldn't use "octopodes" because the Greek word for octopus is "chtapodi." The plural of "octopus" is "octopuses." correct tick
    • (Quotation marks can start to get scruffy. Italics are far neater.)

    More about Quotation Marks

    There are five common issues related to quotation marks.

    (Issue 1) Being inconsistent with single or double quotation marks.

    double or single quotation/speech marks
    Quotation marks come in two forms: singles ('like these') and doubles ("like these"). The most common convention is to use doubles. When using doubles, you should use singles to nest a quotation within another quotation. For example:
    • She said: "My dog can say 'sausages' more clearly than the one on TV."correct tick
    • Homer Simpson said: "Maybe, just once, someone will call me 'Sir' without adding 'you're making a scene.'"correct tick
    Some writers (far more in the UK than in the US) consider double quotation marks too stark, and they like to start with singles and nest doubles within them. For example:
    • She said: 'My dog can say "sausages" more clearly than the one on TV.' correct tick
    There's a lot of leniency on this. The only agreed rule is that singles and doubles should not be mixed at the same level. For example:
    • My dog may not be able to add up, spell my name or say "sausages" or "Esther" like the ones you see on 'That's Life', but he can hold his own in a fight with a badger. wrong cross
    • (This is untidy. Doubles and singles have been mixed at the same level.)
    There are two more quirks. It's not uncommon for writers to use singles to denote alleged or so-called to differentiate the word from quoted speech. It's also common to see singles around individual letters because doubles look too stark.
    • The 'fresh' scallops ponged a bit and were pretty slimy. correct tick
    • There's no 'a' in "definite". No, really, there isn't. correct tick
    Here are some more examples:
    • The website states: "After 30 years, the 'Mary Rose' now has a permanent home in her new, state-of-the-art museum."
    • (The "Mary Rose" was a warship of the English Tudor navy of King Henry VIII.)
    • She said: "I don't need 'friends' like you."
    • (Here, friends is within speech marks to convey the idea of so-called friends, which would have been expressed with voice tone.)
    Read more about using double speech marks (") and single speech marks (')

    (Issue 2) Using quotation marks with reported speech

    Quotation marks are not used for reported speech. (Reported speech is usually preceded by the word that.) Only use quotation marks for actual quotations of speech or writing.
    • The secretary said that "the phones were dead." wrong cross
    • (This is reported speech. The quotation marks do not accurately quote the secretary, who said, "The phones are dead.")
    • The secretary said that the phones were dead. correct tick
    • (This is also reported speech. It is correct without quotation marks.)
    • The secretary said that the phones were "dead." correct tick
    • (This is also reported speech, but this time the quotation marks are fine because they quote the secretary accurately.)
    • The secretary said, "The phones are dead." correct tick
    • (This is not reported speech. The quotation marks show the secretary's actual speech.)
    Here is another example:
    • This morning, Alan said that he liked toast. correct tick
    • (This is an example of reported speech, which is why no quotation marks have been used.)
    • This morning, Alan said that "he liked toast." wrong cross
    • (As these are not the actual words Alan said, there should be no quotation marks.
    • Alan said, "I like toast." correct tick
    • (These are his exact words.)

    (Issue 3) Being unsure whether to use a comma or a colon before a quotation.

    the punctuation before quotation/speech marks
    When introducing a quotation with words like "She whispered" or "It stated" (called words of attribution), you have to decide whether to follow the introduction with a comma, a colon, or nothing. In creative writing, writers are free to choose between a comma, a colon, or nothing to achieve their desired flow of text. In more formal writing, punctuation is expected after an introduction for a quotation. The rules (below) are quite lax, and they overlap, giving you a choice.

    (Rule 1) Use a colon if the introduction is an independent clause.
    • New York gang members all advise the following: "Don't run from fat cops. They shoot earlier."
    Often, using "the following" helps to create an independent clause (i.e., one that could stand alone as a sentence). If you've used a colon, go for a capital letter to start your quotation.

    Read more about capitalization after a colon.
    Read more about colons or commas before quotations.

    (Rule 2) You can use a colon if the quotation is a complete sentence.

    You could opt for a colon if the quotation itself is a complete sentence, especially if you intend to start it with a capital letter.
    • The orders state: "In case of fire, exit the building before tweeting about it."
    • (You could also use a comma here.)
    (Rule 3) Use a comma if the introduction is not an independent clause.

    You should go for a comma if the introduction is not an independent clause.
    • Before each shot, the keeper said aloud, "bum, belly, beak, bang."
    • (Use a comma if the introduction is not an independent clause and the quotation is not a sentence.)
    • Peering over his glasses, he said, "Never test the depth of a river with both feet."
    • (You could also use a colon here because the quotation is a complete sentence.)
    (Rule 4) You can only use a comma after a quotation.

    Only a comma can be used after a quotation.
    • "Always give 100%, unless you're donating blood", he would always say.
    • (A colon is not an option. The question of whether the comma should be inside or outside the quotation mark is covered on Issue 4 below.)
    (Rule 5) Don't use any punctuation if the quotation is not introduced.

    It is common for quotations to be used without introductions. When there's no introduction, don't use any punctuation.
    • I believe there really is, "no place like home."
    • (There should be no comma.)
    • I would hate to see the worst if this is the, "best skiing resort in France".

    (Issue 4) Being unsure whether to place punctuation inside or outside the quotation.

    comma or period inside quotation/speech marks
    Brits and Americans tend to follow different rules when deciding whether a comma or period (full stop) should live inside or outside a quotation and whether to double up with end punctuation. It's not uncommon to find Brits following the so-called US convention. Here is a summary:
    PunctuationUK ConventionUS Convention
    . and , Place your full stops and commas outside (unless they appear in the original).
    • "Sick", to today's youth, means "excellent".
    • "The price of greatness", said Churchill, "is responsibility."
    • (The full stop is in the original.)
    Place your full stops and commas inside.
    • "Sick," to today's youth, means "excellent."
    • "The price of greatness," said Churchill, "is responsibility."
    Obviously, don't put your comma inside if it precedes the quotation (like the one after Churchill).
    ! and ? Place exclamation marks and question marks inside or outside according to logic.
    • Did he say, "I love you"?
    • ("I love you" is not a question, but the whole sentence is.)
    • He shouted, "Do you love me?"
    • (The whole sentence is not a question, but the quotation is.)
    The second example is not a question, but it ends in a question mark. For neatness, it's acceptable to use just one end mark. Under US convention, you should use only one end mark. Under the UK convention and if you're a real logic freak, you can use two end marks.

    • He shouted, "Do you love me?".
    ?, !, and . Don't double up with end marks. But, if you must, you can.
    • Did he ask, "Do you love me?"?
    • (This is unwieldy but acceptable. The sentence is a question, and the quotation is a question.)

    • He shouted, "Do you love me?".
    • (This is unwieldy but acceptable.)
    Don't double up with end marks.
    • Did she really ask, "Do you love me?"? wrong cross
    • (This is too unwieldy for US tastes.)
    • Did she really ask, "Do you love me?"
    : and ; Place colons and semicolons outside the quotation.
    • Samuel Johnson offered three literal definitions for the word "slave": one mancipated to a master, not a free-man and a dependant. Johnson offered a fourth definition, "the lowest form of life"; however, he stated that this definition was only used proverbially.
    More on ?, ! and . Don't end a quotation with a period (full stop) when the quotation doesn't end the whole sentence. There's more leniency with question and exclamation marks, but try to avoid that situation too.
    • "I'm free." he'd say. wrong cross
    • "I'm free", he'd say. correct tick (UK)
    • "I'm free," he'd say. correct tick (US)
    Read more about punctuation with speech marks

    (Issue 5) Using quotation marks for emphasis.

    Don't use quotation marks for emphasis. Firstly, it's not a recognized use for quotation marks, and, secondly, your readers could read them as meaning alleged or so-called.
    • We sell "fresh" fish. wrong cross
    • Welcome to a "clean" Western restaurant. wrong cross
    • (These are both real examples.)

    One More Point about Quotation Marks

    Using Ellipsis (Three Dots) in a Quotation

    ellipsis within a quotation
    You can use three dots (called ellipsis) to show that you have omitted part of a quotation. For example:
    • Original: " I'm never going to be famous. My name will never be writ large on the roster of Those Who Do Things. I don't do anything. Not one single thing. I used to bite my nails, but I don't even do that anymore." (Dorothy Parker, 1893-1967)
    • With ellipsis: "I'm never going to be famous...I don't do anything...I used to bite my nails, but I don't even do that anymore." (Dorothy Parker, 1893-1967)
    Note: Quite often, the ellipsis is placed between square brackets.

    Read more about three dots (ellipsis) within speech marks

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