How to Use Quotation Marks

Quotation MarkQuotation marks are cool little guys. Not only do they have the ability to indicate dialogue, they have an amazing ability to suggest sarcasm or irony. But if used incorrectly, quotation marks can communicate irony when none is intended. Imagine seeing an advertisement for pizza that said: WE USE REAL”CHEESE.” Hmmm… Not sure I want to eat that.

Four Ways to Use Quotation Marks
-Quoting people (verbatim)
-Communicating irony or sarcasm
-Identifying “mini” media
-Drawing attention to specific words

Quoting People
If you put quotation marks around words, phrases, and sentences, you are telling your reader that everything within the quotes was said, verbatim, by someone (whom you should clarify within your writing). If you change the words, you need to use brackets ([]) to indicate a change in words. If you paraphrase, quotation marks are not needed but you still need to cite your source. Introduce most quotes with a comma or a colon.

CorrectLeon Panetta, President Obama’s former defense secretary, said that if this government shutdown happens, “U.S. citizens will lose trust in our system of governing” (
Correct: Panetta on the impending government shutdown: “U.S. citizens will lose trust in our system of governing” (
IncorrectLeon Panetta argued that “Americans won’t trust our government” any more. (This is incorrect because the quote was paraphrased and isn’t verbatim; in this case, just don’t use quotation marks).

Communicating Irony or Sarcasm
Quotation marks are handy tools for communicating irony or sarcasm. Sometimes we make the gesture with our hands (two fingers bent in each hand) when we talk to our friends. The same is true in writing: if you put quotation marks around a single word or phrase, it will be perceived as sarcasm or as a joke or as something fishy.

CorrectYour freshly made “bread” kept my bowels churning all night. (This suggests that the bread wasn’t normal; there was clearly something wrong with it).
Incorrect: I would love it if you made “bread” for dinner tonight. (This creates ambiguity: we don’t know if the writer means he really wants bread, or if he is joking). 

Identify “mini” media
Quotation marks are used to suggest that something is a title, but that it belongs to something larger. For example, a chapter is part of a book, so a chapter title would go in quotation marks; the title of the book, however, would be italicized. There are several things that go in quotation marks because they are part of something larger. If the item doesn’t belong to anything larger than itself, it should be italicized. Here are a list of items that should go in quotation marks:

-Chapter titles (chapters are part of books)
-Articles (articles are part of magazines and newspapers an journals)
-TV episodes (episodes are part of series)
-Song titles (songs are part of albums)
-Journal articles (but not journals)

CorrectI just watched “The One with the Chicken Pox,” my favorite episode on Friends.
: She got tired of reading Malcolm Gladwell’s “Blink”: it was too much like his other books. (Blink is a book title and should be italicized).

Drawing Attention to Specific Words
Quotation marks are also good for drawing attention to specific words. If you want to address a word as a word, put it in quotation marks. But if you’re not addressing a word as a word, then be careful with your quotation marks, or you might be communicating irony or sarcasm as mentioned earlier.

CorrectWhen I get really confused, I prefer to say that I was “bumfuzzled”; it’s so much more fun than saying I was “baffled.”
Incorrect: Last night I felt incredibly “bumfuzzled”; I still can’t get over the fact that she ditched me while I was in the bathroom. (Putting quotes around the word in this sentence creates ambiguity as to what  the author really meant by the term). 

Some Important Rules for Using Quotation Marks
1) Quotation Marks Are Not a Highlighting Technique
As mentioned above, quotation marks are meant to communicate irony, sarcasm, or humor. They are NOT meant to be used to highlight or emphasize words. There are so many options for highlighting and emphasizing information, but quotation marks are not one of them. If you need to highlight or emphasize something, use a different color, a larger font, a different font , reverse type (dark color behind light text), an underline, w h i t e   s p a c e, boldface, italics…shoot, make it blink! But don’t use quotation marks to emphasize or highlight something. Why? Because when you command people (Please don’t “eat” that), it looks like a suggestion, not a requirement. And when you’re trying to sell a genuine product (Fresh “Grapes”), it looks like you’re selling some goofy, illegitimate concoction.

2) Quotation Marks Go Outside of Periods and Commas (Unless You’re British) but Inside Colons and Semicolons
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. But if you’re using a colon or semicolon, the punctuation marks go after the quotation marks.

CorrectMy 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).
CorrectMy brother threatened to “Stuff a whole apple pie down my throat”; apparently he didn’t want me eating any more of his Cheerios.
Incorrect: I told him in response that I would “like to see him try”.

3) Quotation Marks Can Sometimes Go Inside of Question Marks
Question marks can 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. But if you simply said, “Can you believe she has a crush her new husband’s brother?” the quotation marks go inside.

4) 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. Indenting the entire quote makes it clear that the text is quoted and is more visually apparent than having quotation marks hidden somewhere in a long paragraph.

2 thoughts on “How to Use Quotation Marks

  • June 17, 2014 at 6:07 pm

    You say titles of books or films should be italicized not in quotation marks, but what about handwriting? should you use quotation marks then?

    • June 17, 2014 at 7:30 pm

      Great question, Matilde!

      With handwriting, you should underline anything that would normally be italicized. The ability to italicize came with the advent of desktop publishing and Word processors (like Microsoft Word). Before that technology was available, handwriting and typewriters both had to underline book titles and films. Keep quotation marks out of things that should be italicized or you’ll create a bit of confusion for your reader. 🙂

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