Thursday, February 24, 2011

English teacher: quotation marks

It's Thursday--time for me to put on my English teacher hat!

Several readers have asked me to explain the correct usage of punctuation marks and quotation marks. Like many of the issues I'll tackle in this series, this particular problem affects only our writing. We have no problem with punctuation issues when we speak--we use our voices to indicate pauses, emphasis, etc. But when we write, we depend upon punctuation in order to communicate clearly.

Quotation marks are used for several purposes, the most common being the enclosing of dialogue. In this case, the use of quotation marks allows the reader to know that what she is reading is a direct quotation from a speaker. Quotation marks are also used to mark special terms that need to be set apart in some way. For instance, you may need to indicate that you're using a term ironically, or that you're using a term that is in fact a quotation from another source, even if you're not citing the source at the time you use the term. And quotation marks are used to enclose the names of small works of writing, such as the titles of songs, articles, and episodes. (Larger works would be marked by underlining, boldfacing, or italicising.)

The problems with the use of quotation marks usually stem from a writer's not knowing how to include ending punctuation marks along with quotation marks. There are a few simple rules to help:

  • Place commas and periods (full stops) INSIDE quotation marks.


"I'm so glad you can come to the party," said Rachel.
"It sounds like fun," answered Susan. "Thanks for inviting me."

Special note: If you need to include parenthetical material after the direct quotation, simply enclose the words of the quotation in quotation marks, list the parenthetical statement, and then place the closing punctuation. For example: Jesus said, "I am the way, the truth, and the life" (John 14:6).

  • Place colons and semi-colons OUTSIDE quotation marks.


I've never listened to all of "Stairway to Heaven"; I always turn it off before it's finished.
The singer listed four key elements to what she calls "The Road to the Grammies": talent, dedication, perseverance, and good breaks.

  • Question marks and exclamation points should be placed inside the quotation marks only if they are part of the quotation (that is, if the actual quotation is a question or an exclamation). If the whole sentence, not the quotation, is the question or exclamation, simply enclose the quotation with no ending punctuation and place the question mark or exclamation point outside the quotation marks.


"Can I help you?" asked the clerk.
Does the receptionist always answer the phone by saying, "It's a great day at Johnson's Fitness Center"?

"I can't wait!" shouted the boy.
I am so excited that RCA is going to re-release my favorite Elvis song, "How Great Thou Art"!

  • Sometimes you'll want to include a quotation inside a larger quotation. For instance, you may be writing out what a person said, and part of what she said is an item that should be in quotation marks. In that case, you use single quotation marks (same keyboard stroke as the apostrophe) to enclose the inside quotation and regular quotation marks to enclose the entire quotation.


"Have you seen the 'Serenity Now' episode of Seinfeld?" asked Amanda.

I hope this is helpful to you. As always, I'd be happy to answer any specific questions you may have. If there's a grammatical issue you'd like for me to write about, please let me know. If there's a particular question you'd like for me to answer right away, email me (richella (at) gmail (dot) com).


Shelly @ Life on the Wild Side said...

I love you. This is one of my biggest pet-peeves when it comes to punctuation. And you got it perfectly right! Thank you!

(Also, it should be noted that the British do things differently in this area, so if you're reading a book published in England, most likely the periods or commas will fall outside the quotation mark. Very confusing.)

HeathahLee said...

Kiddo and I JUST studied quotation marks in Language. Thanks for the reinforcement. ; )

Danyelle said...

Thanks for posting this! I've noticed that I needed a refresher lately.

Carmie of the Single Nester said...

Great post to refresh our writing.

Amanda @ Serenity Now said...

This was an awesome refresher, as sometimes I just make up my own rules when I don't remember. ;) I love secret blog messages...bwahaha.

Paula said...

Another great lesson! You make it so clear and easy to understand.

Leslie @ goodbye, house! HELLO, HOME! said...

Love these lessons!
Leslie queried, "You never have listened to 'Stairway to Heaven' in its entirety? I am aghast!"
I need these reminders so very terribly!
Thank you!

FrouFrouBritches said...

THANK YOU! THANK YOU! THANK YOU! I avoid quotation marks for exactly this reason. I always question myself on the puctuation. You rock Richella! I've bookmarked this for future reference!

sonya said...

Have you ever seen this blog?
It is hilarious. Thanks for the lesson! Love you! ~Sonya

Kathleen said...

LOL! I spent many hours teaching 4th and 5th graders how to use quotation marks.
Thanks for visiting, and leaving a sweet comment.
I, too, love The Mitford Series!

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