Proper Punctuation: Using Commas with Quotations

When to Use Commas and When Not to Use Commas with Quotations

 
Some people are unsure of when it is necessary to use a comma before beginning a quotation or at the end of a quotation in their writing. Some writers use commas too often, and others do not use them often enough.

If you find yourself unsure of whether you should use a comma when introducing or ending a quotation, continue reading this article which explains when you should (and when you should not) use commas with quotations.
 

When it is correct to use commas with quotation marks

 

1) Use a comma before a quotation when the words introducing the quotation do not smoothly transition into it.

 
It is not always obvious when an introductory phrase flows smoothly into a quotation, but if the introductory phrase ends with a word such as said, explained, or wrote, you can be sure the transition is not smooth. This tends to be the case in fictional writing, as the narrator announces that someone is speaking in some manner.

Incorrect: James shouted “Be quiet!”

Correct: James shouted, “Be quiet!”

 

2) When a quotation begins a sentence, a comma should be placed at the end of the quotation.

 
This rule is pretty straightforward, but I have proofread work in which writers consistently omit these necessary commas.

Incorrect: “It was right here a minute ago” he said nervously.

Correct: “It was right here a minute ago,” he said nervously.

 

3) When a quotation is separated into two parts with your own (or the narrator’s) words in between, the first part of the quotation should end with a comma.

 

Incorrect: As the speech emphasized that “it is the small things that make up life”  the speaker was careful not to contradict herself when she discussed how “sweating the small stuff is largely a waste of time.”

Correct: As the speech emphasized that “it is the small things that make up life,”  the speaker was careful not to contradict herself when she discussed how “sweating the small stuff is largely a waste of time.”

 

When it is incorrect to use a comma with quotation marks

 

1) Do not use a comma before a quotation when the words that introduce the quotation flow nicely into it.

 
Often, non-fiction writers introduce quotes in such a way that it would be difficult to know where the quotation begins if one were to listen to the passage being read aloud. When the quotation’s introduction blends into the quotation itself in this way, there should be no comma before the opening quotation mark. The previous example used this kind of quotation. Here it is again:

As the speech emphasized that “it is the small things that make up life,”  the speaker was careful not to contradict herself when she discussed how “sweating the small stuff is largely a waste of time.”

Placing a comma after that or how would have been an error.
 

2) Do not use a comma before a quotation when the introduction to the quotation could stand alone as a full sentence.

 
When a quotation is introduced in this manner, a colon should be used in place a comma. I will rephrase the previous example to illustrate this.

Incorrect: The speaker began with an old cliché, “it is the small things that make up life.”

Correct: The speaker began with an old cliché: “It is the small things that make up life.”


 
Jake Magnum, author of the Magnum Proofreading Tips blog, is dedicated to helping writers perfect their work. In addition to giving free advice on his blog, Jake helps writers by offering very affordable proofreading services at magnumproofreading.com.

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