Quotation marks are most commonly used to indicate the exact words that someone else said. This is known as direct speech or direct quotation.
There are two forms of quotation marks: double quotation marks ( “ ” ) and single quotation marks ( ‘ ’ ). American English almost exclusively uses double quotation marks, while British English tends to favor single quotation marks (although it is not uncommon to see double quotation marks used in British English as well).
Punctuating direct speech
Quotation marks make it clear when speech is being quoted in writing. However, there are a few other punctuation rules that we use to help make it clear what was said by the person being quoted, as opposed to the person quoting him or her.
Most of the time, we introduce quoted text with a reporting verb, such as said, told, asked, remarked, etc. If we are quoting an entire sentence, we set the quotation apart with one or two commas. For example:
- John said, “I’ll never live in this city again.”
- Mary told him, “I want to have another baby,” which took him by surprise.
- The other day, my daughter asked, “Mommy, why do I have to go to school, but you don’t?”
However, if we are quoting a fragment of speech that is used as an integral part of the overall sentence, then no commas are used. For instance:
- John said he feels “really bad” about what happened.
Direct speech before a reporting verb
We can also put direct speech before the reporting verb. Again, we usually use a comma to separate the quoted text from the unquoted text, as in:
- “I can’t wait to see daddy,” my son said.
However, if a question mark or exclamation point is used in the direct speech, then we do not use a comma no matter where the quotation is located:
- “Where are we going?” asked Sally.
- “This is going to be great!” Tom exclaimed.
End punctuation: American vs. British English
In American English, a period or comma used at the end of direct speech always appears within the quotation marks.
In British English, however, if the quotation ends in a period or comma, it is usually placed outside the quotation mark, as in:
- The CEO said, ‘This is a great day for the company’.
- ‘I want to be a doctor when I grow up’, Susy told us yesterday.
Note that if a quoted sentence ends in a question mark or exclamation point that belongs to the quotation, it will appear within the quotation marks. If the question mark or exclamation point belongs to the overall sentence (that is, it isn’t actually part of the quotation), it will appear outside the quotation marks. This is the same in both American and British English. For example:
- Samantha asked, ‘How long will it take to get there?’
- But I don’t want to just “see how things go”!
Using multiple sets of quotation marks
If a sentence already uses quotation marks and quoted text appears within it, then we have to differentiate between the two quoted elements. If we are already using double quotation marks, then we have to put the quoted speech in single quotation marks; likewise, if the main sentence is in single quotation marks, then the newly quoted text is put into double quotation marks. The rest of the punctuation in the sentence does not change. For example:
- “They told us, ‘We don’t have the budget for more staff.’”
- ‘The prime minister is reported to have said that he is “in disagreement with the president’s remarks”, which prompted a quick response from the White House.’
Using quotation marks across multiple paragraphs
Quotation marks almost always travel as a pair, with a closing quotation mark ( ” ) required anytime an opening quotation mark ( “ ) is used. There is one specific exception to this rule, however, which occurs when quoted text spans multiple paragraphs. When this happens, we put an opening quotation mark at the beginning of each quoted paragraph, but we only put a closing quotation mark after the last paragraph. For example:
- “When I was young, my father told me about the many adventures he had traveling across southern France on his motorbike. Ever since, I’ve had a burning desire to make a similar journey of my own. It wasn’t until nearly 40 years later, though, that I had the chance. (The quotation continues into the next paragraph, so no closing quotation mark is used here.)
- “Having lost my job during the recession, I decided to sell my house and most of my belongings. I found an ex-pat living in Paris from whom I could buy a motorbike at a good price, so I booked a flight and made my way across the Atlantic, with nothing but a tattered map of France, a notebook, and my father’s old rucksack.” (This is the end of the quotation, so a closing quotation mark is now necessary.)
In addition to indicating quoted speech, quotation marks also serve to indicate the titles of smaller pieces of creative work, as well as to highlight particular words or phrases that are uncertain or questionable.
While we use italics or occasionally underlining to indicate the title of a complete body of creative work (such as a novel, music album, play, or film), we use quotation marks to indicate the titles of smaller bodies of works (such as short stories, articles, or poems) or sections of a larger work (such as chapters, songs, or television episodes). For example:
- The final chapter of Moby-Dick, called “The Chase – Third Day,” is a truly thrilling piece of writing.
- Did you ever see The Simpsons episode “King Size Homer”? It’s one of my favorites.
- “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost is often studied in American Literature classes.
However, note that longer poems or stories (that are or could be published as standalone books) can take italics rather than quotation marks, as in:
- T.S. Eliot’s poem The Wasteland is deservedly regarded as a masterpiece, as is his shorter work, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”
Highlighting certain words
We can also use quotation marks to place emphasis on a word or phrase we feel is strange or dubious, or about which we are not certain. Putting such words in quotation marks suggests to the reader that the thing indicated is peculiar or even untrustworthy. For example:
- Everyone calls him Honest Joe, but from my experience there’s nothing “honest” about him.
- Well, their “sale” is really just a $5 coupon that’s only valid if you spend over $100 in the store.
In a similar fashion, we can use quotation marks to highlight terminology that is considered novel or outside the mainstream lexicon. For instance:
- One of the emerging “neo-Gothic revivalists,” the artist has seen several of his latest pieces fetch extraordinary prices.
- The tech company is continuing to develop their line of “office on the move” smart phones.