Quotation marks are awesome. They let us talk about words like “hornswoggled” in a sentence without creating confusion. They let us directly quote people, like Jim, when he says cool stuff like, “my teeth are weirdly falling out sideways.” They clearly identify chapters from entire books, like “The Route to Normal Science,” in Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (best book ever, by the way). And they even imply sarcasm in written sentences, like when I write that I “enjoyed” being coaxed into watching Downton Abbey.
But like with any other punctuation mark, when used incorrectly quotation marks cause confusion and funny mishaps. If it’s been a while since you brushed up on your quotation mark uses, check out these 10 rules you really ought know. And if that’s just not enough, check out the quotation marks page of my punctuation resource.
#1: Quotation Marks Are for Quoting People—Verbatim
Perhaps it should go without saying, but quotation marks are for quoting people. Quoting doesn’t mean summarizing or paraphrasing; it means repeating exactly what someone said. If you put double quotes around a phrase, your reader will often assume that someone, somewhere, said that exact phrase or sentence. If you want to “sort of” quote somebody, but change a few words here and there, you need to get extra fancy with your punctuation: use brackets within the quotes to add in words or change verb tense; use ellipses to omit words; and use italics to highlight certain words in a quotation (but then use parentheses at the end to tell readers that you modified the quotation by italicizing it). Confusing enough? If you’re a bit rusty on these rules, you’re encouraged to refresh—and not directly quote anybody until you have.
#2: Quotation Marks Are Not a Highlighting Technique
There are so many options for highlighting information on a sign: use a different color, a larger font, a different font, reverse type (dark color behind light text), an underline, white space, boldface, italics…make it blink! But don’t use quotation marks to emphasize or highlight something. Why? Because when you command people, it looks like a suggestion, not a requirement. And when you’re trying to sell a genuine product, it looks like you’re selling some goofy, illegitimate concoction.
#3: Quotation Marks Can Communicate Sarcasm and Irony
One of the greatest virtues of quotation marks in our language is that they can become the body language and facial expressions of the written word. They can make any word sarcastic or ironic, like in this sentence:
Your freshly made “bread” kept my bowels churning all night.
#4: Quotation Marks Go Outside of Periods and Commas (Unless You’re British)
It’s true, British English and American English don’t place their periods in the same spot (and the Brits actually call them “full stops,” just to be clear). Don’t blame the Brits on this one—Americans actually have the quirky rule. Regardless of logic, if you use quotation marks in a sentence, the period comes before the last quotation mark, as in this sentence: My brother threatened that if I ate any more if his Cheetos, he’d, “Stuff a whole apple down my throat.” (Unless, of course, you’re British, in which case the period would jump outside of the quotation marks).
#5: Quotation Marks Can Sometimes Go Inside of Question Marks
But rule #4 doesn’t always apply to all punctuation marks! Colons and semicolons ALWAYS go outside of quotation marks. No matter what. And question marks go outside of quotation marks in certain cases, like when when you have something quoted within a larger sentence: Can you believe that she said, in front of everyone at the wedding, that she still has “a serious and undeniable crush on my new hubby’s brother”? Because the quoted statement is part of a larger question, the question mark goes outside of the quotation.
#6: Quotation Marks Identify “Mini” Media
If you’re trying to decide if a title goes in quotation marks or if it is italicized, here’s the secret: if it is a small piece of something larger, it goes in quotation marks. A newspaper article, for example, is a smaller piece of the whole newspaper. So, the article goes in quotation marks and the newspaper itself (The New York Times) is italicized. A TV episode is a small piece of an entire series. So, “Trouble in Candyland,” an episode last season on Parenthood, is in quotation marks. “Enter Sandman” is Metallica’s best song on the Black Album. “Vision” is my favorite chapter in the book Brain Rules. You get the picture.
#7: But Quotation Marks DO NOT Identify “Mega” Media
Reiterating what was said in #6: if a piece of media doesn’t fit into something larger, then it is italicized (not underlined, by the way; if you’re still underlining, throw out your typewriter and move to the digital age). So, here’s a small list of what should not be in quotation marks (and should, thus, be italicized): books, movies, documentaries, TV series, journals, magazines, and names of big boats (seriously, Titanic should be italicized, not in quotation marks).
#8: Quotation Marks Are Good for Addressing Specific Words
If you’re writing a sentence where you talk about words, use quotation marks to clarify.
When I get really confused, I prefer to say that I was “bumfuzzled”; it’s so much more fun than saying I was “baffled.”
#9: Single Quotation Marks Are for Quotes Inside of Quotes
Typically, you’ll want to avoid quoting inside of another quote. It’s usually awkward. But if you find yourself in that awkward situation, put double quotes on the main quote and single quotes on the interior quote, like this:
When asked by his mother about why he dumped his latest girlfriend, Harry was blunt: “I didn’t like the way she said, ‘I love you, Love Bucket’ in front of my man friends.”
#10: Quotation Marks Are Not Used for Block Quotes
If you ever quote someone and the quotation stretches beyond four lines of text in your document, get rid of the quotation marks. Introduce who said the quote, then indent the entire quote to the right and call it good.