The Complete Guide To Using Quotations Marks Without Looking Like An Idiot

Our language needs quotation marks. Without them, we couldn’t know who said what to whom or even what they meant.

Unfortunately, using them can prove tricky. Quotations marks appear in both double and single form with other punctuation placed inside or outside of them depending on the situation.

We’ve broken down what you need to know to use them correctly in American English.

The Uses

Direct quotes require quotation marks. If you want to write exactly what someone said or wrote, you’ll need to use double quotations marks to offset the sentence or phrase.

Example: My brother said, “We should go to the liquor store and buy some Scotch.”

Note: If a full paragraph of quoted material is followed by more quoted material, don’t place a quotation mark at the end of the paragraph. Do, however, begin the next paragraph with a quotation mark.

Some titles require quotation marks. Many grammar guides — including the Associated Press Stylebook, which BI follows — list every title you need to put quotes around. But we prefer a simple guideline for general writing: If the creative work exists inside a larger creative work, use quotes.

For example, you’d place an essay featured in a book within double quotation marks, while the book’s title simply requires italics. A single track on a CD also needs quotation marks, as would an episode in a TV show or an article in a newspaper or magazine.

You can also use quotation marks to emphasise a word or phrase, often marking sarcasm or irony.

Example: Let’s go “buy” some Scotch. (Maybe you intend to steal or otherwise nab a bottle for free).

But many writers discourage these so-called scare quotes. They can mislead readers and seem a bit too snarky.

The Rules

First, let’s address single quotation marks.

One rule covers this: Use single quotation marks instead of the standard double quotations within another quoted phrase. This holds true for direct quotes, titles, and scare quotes appearing in another quoted phrase.

Example: “Your brother just said, ‘We should go to the liquor store and buy some Scotch,'” my friend explained.

Next, we’ll go over proper punctuation placement around quotations. Again, these rules refer to American English. Don’t listen to the Brits.

Periods always go inside quotation marks, except in sentences with a citation. (You can look up MLA and APA references on your own).

You’ll also never double-up on punctuation. Use a comma, period, question mark, etc., but don’t use two of those in a row.

Commas at the end of quoted phrases go inside quotation marks.

Example: “We should go to the liquor store and buy some Scotch,” my brother said.

Even though the quote in the above example is a complete sentence, never use a period until the end of the entire sentence.

Commas preceding quoted phrases go outside quotation marks.

Example: My brother said, “We should go to the liquor store and buy some Scotch.”

If attribution occurs in the middle of a quote, place the first comma within the quotation marks and the second outside.

Example: “We should go to the liquor store,” my brother said, “and buy some Scotch.”

A comma will almost always separate a direct quote from an attribution. The only exceptions to this are when “that” precedes the quote or if the quote isn’t a complete sentence.

When using question marks, placement depends on whether the entire sentence is a question or only the quote is a question.

If only the quote is a question, the question mark goes inside quotation marks.

Example: My brother said, “Should we go the liquor store?”

Even if the quoted question occurs in the middle of a sentence, you still need the question mark (and no comma).

Example: My brother said, “Should we go to the liquor store?” as we walked out the door.

If the entire sentence is a question, however, the question mark goes outside the quotation marks.

Example: Did my brother say, “We should go to the liquor store”?

Lastly, if both the entire sentence and the quote are questions, put the question back inside the quotation marks.

Example: Did my brother say, “Should we go to the liquor store?”

When you’re quoting a question that’s quoting another question, it’s extremely difficult to know where to put the question mark. Technically, you should place a question mark between single and double quotation marks — as strange as that looks.

Example: My friend asked, “Did your brother just say, ‘We should go to the liquor store’?”

The same rules for question marks apply to exclamation points.

Finally, colons and semi-colons always go outside quotation marks. You might think you won’t ever use a semicolon, but it has nuanced purposes.

Now that you know all about quotation marks, you might really need to buy that Scotch.

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