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How to Use Quotation Marks

Quotation marks are used quite frequently in our everyday writing. Yet in the middle of writing a paper or article, you may find yourself stopping in your tracks, trying to remember how to use quotation marks correctly. Depending on the type of quote it is, you may wonder, “Hmmm…how exactly is this supposed to be punctuated?”

Don’t feel bad. Even the best of writers can pause at such junctures. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad writer, or that you didn’t pay attention in school. It just means that the rules can be tricky.

And even if you passed a test on how to use quotation marks in 4th grade, by now it is very likely you have gotten a bit fuzzy on the details. So here’s a quick guide to help you out when you might be questioning yourself.

How to Use Quotation Marks With Direct Quotes

Here’s the one that everyone likely remembers. When you have a sentence where you are directly quoting what someone said, you separate the regular words in the sentence from the quote by a comma – and add double quotation marks around the quote itself.

Examples:

“I’m going home,” Marsha said.

Taylor stated, “Let’s get the heck out of here!”

“Why in the world,” she exclaimed, “would you run out in front of a tour bus?”

Let’s further break down what we see in the examples (in order as per above):

  • Use commas
    • To end the quote, before completing the sentence
    • To introduce a direct quote
    • To interrupt a direct quote
      • Capitalize the quote if it is the beginning of the quoted sentence, even if the quote starts mid-sentence.
  • If a direct quote ends the sentence,
    • use the appropriate punctuation for the quote to end the sentence,
    • and put the punctuation inside of the quotation marks.

Commas and Periods in Direct Quotes

Commas and periods are easy. When they are required, they always go within the quotation marks – even if they are not part of the original quote.

Examples:

“The only schools we will even consider,” said Maryann, “are those that have zero tolerance for bullying.” (correct)

“The only schools we will even consider”, said Maryann, “are those that have zero tolerance for bullying”. (incorrect)

He voted, “No.” Then he changed his mind and shouted out, “I mean yes,” and then, “No,” all within seconds. (correct)

He voted, “No”. Then he changed his mind and shouted out, “I mean yes”, and then, “No”, all within seconds. (incorrect)

Other Punctuation Marks in Direct Quotes

For any punctuation marks other than periods and commas – the rule is logical if you think about it. If an exclamation point or question mark is a part of the actual quotation, then put it inside the quotation marks.

If the punctuation is not part of the actual quotation, but instead “belongs” to the rest of the sentence – then put it outside of the quotation marks.

Examples:

Tyler shouted, “There’s a fire in the house!”

Do you believe in the old adage that, “The early bird gets the worm”?

Likewise, if a question mark, exclamation point, etc., ends the quotation mid-sentence, then you should use the proper punctuation mark to replace what would normally be the comma.

Examples:

“Why don’t you want to swim with me?” she asked.

“I can’t believe you just grabbed him!” Jasmine exclaimed.

How to Use Quotation Marks Outside of Direct Quotes

When we’re not talking about direct quotes, things change up a bit. There are many instances of how to use quotation marks in our writing, so let’s take a look at a few.

Punctuation Rules

You may use quotation marks even when you are not capturing a direct quote. In the examples below, the quotation marks may surround what we can assume is a direct quote of some kind – but the quote’s function in the sentence is as the subject or object. When this is the case, you do not need to use the comma.

Examples:

Is “Shut up” a nice thing to say to our friends?

Calling him an “idiot on steroids” was not the most efficient way of dealing with his aggressiveness.

Another situation where a comma is not needed to separate a quotation from the rest of the sentence is when the quote flows directly from the rest of the sentence. In these situations, the other words in the sentence can be thought of as introducing the quote, but the quote is not direct. Instead, it may refer to something that was said repeatedly in a particular context, or not said at all.

Examples:

He tells me “the brakes need to be repaired” every time I go to the mechanic.

In closing arguments, the plaintiff’s attorney repeatedly talked about the “breach of his duty to drive safely.”

There are several other uses for quotation marks, that may or may not require punctuation. There are:

  • Quotations used in technical terms
  • Quotations used with words used differently than normal usage
  • Quotations within a quotation
  • Quotations used to refer to components of bodies of art or creative works
  • Quotations used to refer to nicknames
  • Block quotations

We will touch upon a few of these briefly.

Technical Terms

When terms that are specific to a certain industry and aren’t commonly known, they can be put in quotation marks to set them aside from the rest of the sentence.

After a person gets arrested, their first court date is called a “first appearance” or “arraignment” depending on which jurisdiction you’re in.

As you can see in the above example, there is no comma needed to separate the quote from the rest of the sentence.

Words Used Differently Than Normal Usage

When you are using a word differently than it would normally be used, you can show the reader that fact by using quotation marks. Think of “air quotes!” They annoy us all, but people started doing that to highlight words or phrases that they were using in an untraditional sense.

My “pal” Margie was the one who started the rumor.

The person my dad hired tried to “tutor” me in Latin didn’t know a single word.

Quotes Within Quotes

When you have a quote within another quote, you use double quotation marks to surround the bigger quote, and single quotation marks to distinguish the smaller quote.

Also – keep in mind that you never use a single quotation by itself! It’s always used within another set of double quotation marks.

Tory’s remarks in the debate were unconvincing: “The author alludes to ‘building a Utopia within America’ by instituting Marxist policies. I agree wholeheartedly because this is the only way to stop ‘class warfare’ at its roots.”

Block Quotations

Longer quotations should be set apart from the rest of body of the main text.

How you can do this is partly a matter of stylistic choice. You can properly set the long quotation apart by starting a new line with the beginning of the quotation, and begin it with quotation marks. Obviously, end it with quotation marks as well.

Example:

In his novel, Dickens begins with:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times… (Continue the paragraph and end with closing quotation marks.)

Or, you can set the quotation apart by indenting it further than the rest of the text and using a different font. If you choose this style, it is not necessary to use quotation marks.

Example:

In his novel, Dickens begins with:

    It was the best of times, it was the worst of times… (Continue the paragraph.)

I hope that this short guide helps you dust some of the cobwebs off your past grammar lessons! Feel free to comment or leave questions below, or check out our Professional Writing lessons for more guidance on how to use quotation marks and other forms of punctuation. Happy writing!

P.S. Become a better writer. Find out more here.

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