Using Quotation Marks Properly
Quotation marks can sometimes be confusing for writers. On some occasions, writers may ask themselves whether they should even use quotation marks at all. Even when it is clear that quotation marks should be used, it is not always clear where they should be placed in relation to other punctuation marks.
If you often find yourself wondering if you have used quotation marks correctly, this article will help you learn to use quotation marks properly.
When to use quotation marks
The first part of this article will outline instances in which it is appropriate to use quotation marks.
1) Use quotation marks for direct quotations.
Obviously, quotation marks are used to indicate that a word or phrase is being quoted — that is, that someone else originally said or wrote the word or phrase. Quotation marks are commonly used in dialogue, as in the following example:
“I would like you to take this photograph to remember me by,” Tom offered.
“Thank you, Tom,” Lisa said as she took the photo from him. “I shall treasure it forever.”
2) Use quotation marks around some titles.
Using quotation marks around titles is sometimes correct and is sometimes incorrect.
Titles of the following kinds of works should be placed within quotation marks when mentioned in your writing: articles, short stories, poems, songs, television and radio episodes, and chapters or sections of books.
Titles of the following kinds of works should not be placed within quotation marks and should be italicized instead: books, plays, movies, and the names of television and radio shows.
3) Use quotation marks to indicate that a given word itself is being discussed and is not to be read as it normally would be.
When a word itself is treated as a noun, it can be placed within quotation marks to indicate this. (Italicizing the word is also acceptable, and this is what I routinely do in my articles.)
Here is an example:
He said he would get it done eventually — the key word being “eventually.”
How to use quotation marks
The question of where to place quotation marks in relation to other punctuation marks troubles many writers. The remainder of this article will discuss conventions that are used when quotation marks are combined with other punctuation marks.
Quotations within quotations
When quoting a phrase that contains a quotation, the quotation within the quotation should be enclosed within single quotation marks.1
Here is an example:
“My boss is a jerk. He’s always saying things like ‘You’re a useless idiot,’ or ‘You’re lucky you haven’t been fired.'”
When other punctuation marks are involved
Some punctuation marks, when they come at the end of a quotation, are placed within the quotation marks, and others are placed outside the quotation marks.
Periods and commas are placed within quotation marks.
Correct: “You shouldn’t be here,” she told him. “You need to leave now.”
Incorrect: “You shouldn’t be here”, she told him. “You need to leave now”.
Colons and semi-colons should be placed outside of quotation marks.
Correct: He said “I am so sorry about what happened”; his words, however, sounded very insincere.
Incorrect: He said, “I am so sorry about what happened;” his words, however, sounded very insincere.
Question marks and exclamation marks should be placed within quotation marks if the speaker or writer being quoted is asking a question or making an exclamation. The question mark or exclamation point should be placed outside the quotation marks if the entire sentence which includes the quotation is a question or an exclamation.
Correct: The question needs to be asked: “Who’s in charge, here?”
Incorrect: The question needs to be asked: “Who’s in charge, here”?
Correct: Have you ever heard the expression, “Too many cooks spoil the broth”?
Incorrect: Have you ever heard the expression, “Too many cooks spoil the broth?”
1In Britain, single quotation marks are predominantly used. For quotation-within-quotation situations, the quotation inside the quotation is enclosed in double quotation marks.
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.