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Proper Use of Quotation Marks

Quotation marks show that those words are being spoken. They are used a lot in dialogue in fiction writing. Dialogue is words spoken by characters. Quotation marks are always in pairs, with the first set opening the quote and the second set closing the quote.

Journalists also use quotation marks to show a statement is a direct quote from someone. Academics may use quotation marks to show that they are quoting another writer. 

Quotation Marks: American vs. British

One of the many differences between American English and British English is how they use quotation marks. In American English, double quotation marks (“ ”) are used for quotes, while single quotation marks (‘ ’) are used for quotes within quotes. However, the British do the exact opposite. 

Also, periods and commas go before the closing quotation marks in American English. Once again, British English is the opposite because they put them after the closing quotation mark. 

This article is only on American English rules regarding quotation marks.

Quotes in Dialogue

One of the most confusing aspects about quotation marks is where to put other nearby punctuation. 

Here is correctly punctuated dialogue:

Joseph said, “I’m skipping school today.”

“No way!” cried Frank.

“Yes, I am,” Joseph replied.

“Why would you do that?” Frank wondered.

“I just want to.”

“And,” Frank continued, “why do you ‘just want to’?”

In the first sentence, Joseph makes a declarative statement. You can see that the period is properly placed inside the quotation marks. One helpful tip is to treat anything within the quotation marks as separate from the rest of the sentence. So, it needs its own correct punctuation. Therefore, if the quote is a full sentence, it needs to begin with a capital letter and end with a punctuation mark.

The second sentence goes on a different line because a different character is speaking. Frank’s words end with an exclamation mark. You can see that the exclamation mark goes before the closing quotation mark.

In the third sentence, Joseph makes a statement that is followed by the dialogue tag Joseph replied. When a sentence that would usually end in a period is followed by a dialogue tag, you turn the period into a comma. And it goes before the closing quotation mark.

The fourth sentence ends with a question mark. The rules for question marks are the same as exclamation marks; if it belongs to the sentence inside the question mark, then it goes inside the question mark.  

Next, we know Joseph is speaking even though there is no dialogue tag. The context of the conversation lets us know who is speaking.

The sixth sentence uses a dialogue tag in the middle of Frank’s sentence. Look at how the commas after and and continued go before the quotation marks. This sentence has a quote within a quote. The single quotation marks are used to show that Frank is repeating Joseph’s words just want to.

Quotations Outside of Dialogue

When quotes are used in nonfiction and academic writing, they are usually referring to another source. You use the same rules as dialogue quotations. However, be extra careful that the quoted words fit properly within the rest of the sentence.

Correct: They referred to the winner as “the best writer in Texas” and added that she wrote historical fiction.

Incorrect: They referred to the winner as “the best writer in Texas, and she wrote historical fiction.”

Changing tenses and points of view within a quote is confusing.

What are Scare Quotes?

Scare quotes are used when the writer wants to distance themselves from the words they use. It shows that they’re using an unusual term, and they may not agree with it.

For example:

The business was considered a “failed start-up” even though it had many successes.

The scare quotes around failed start-up suggest that it may be a controversial term. Using too many scare quotes can confuse or annoy readers, so don’t use them too much.

Scare quotes suggest disapproval or sarcasm, so they should not be used for emphasis. For example, a sign outside a coffee shop that advertises Best “Coffee” for Miles will confuse many people. Is it really coffee? Do they use some kind of weird coffee imitation? 

Quotes can add a lot to your writing, as long as you use them correctly!


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By Patrice Riley

Patrice Riley is the pen name of Dr. Deborah Riley. She is a retired English professor that enjoys grammar, literature, and all things writing.

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