How to Use Quotation Marks

Over the years I’ve taught thousands of students how to use quotation marks. The whole lesson takes just a few minutes. Here the gist:

In the US, commas and periods always go inside the quotation marks. There are no exceptions. (Other countries do it differently.)

I always put a few sample sentences on the chalkboard, and then I ask if there are any questions. There’s always a kindhearted student who wants to set me straight without embarrassing me:

“But Dr. Reynolds! You forgot to mention that commas and periods go outside quotation marks if a sentence is incomplete, or it’s the title of a poem, or…”

Sigh.

Here’s what I’m always tempted to say (but haven’t so far): “How is it that you made it all the way to college without learning the meanings of always and no exceptions? And how come you’ve never noticed that no book or newspaper or magazine published in the US ever uses quotation marks in the way you’re describing?”

Luckily the better angel on my right shoulder always comes to my rescue with a gentle rebuttal: “No, Mary (or John or Antonio or Liz), in the US commas and periods always go inside the quotation marks. Here’s a project for you: Pay attention to the books and articles you read for the next few days, and see if you can find any exceptions. I guarantee you won’t, unless there’s a British publisher.”

Mary (or John or Antonio or Liz) always solemnly promises to bring a pile of examples to the next class to prove that I’m wrong. And of course that never happens.

It’s true that writers in the UK put commas and periods outside – but that usage is forbidden in the US. In fact all British usage is prohibited on American soil. I’ve often encountered well-read students who use British spellings (favourite, honour) and inverted commas (‘To be or not to be, that is the question’). But you can’t adopt those usages in the US.

Similarly, you can’t practice American usage in the UK. When I wrote an article about Bernard Shaw for a British publisher last year, I was careful to use inverted commas, with the periods and commas outside, and British spelling.

OK, I’ll concede two exceptions: If you’re quoting from a British book or magazine, of course you use the original spelling and punctuation. And inverted commas – also called single quotation marks – are appropriate for a quote within a quote:

“I’m leaving early,” said Jenny, “because ‘I have miles to go before I sleep’ and a term paper to finish.”

While we’re at it, let’s deal with a few more rules about quotation marks:

  • Use quotation marks for titles of short works, such as poems and magazine articles. But don’t use quotation marks for the title of something you’ve written – such as a paper for school or an article for a magazine – unless it’s a quotation.
  • Don’t use quotation marks to sound folksy, apologize for an unconventional expression, or emphasize a word or phrase. Professional writers don’t use quotation marks this way, and you shouldn’t either.

I have some examples of what not to do from a recent Hints from Heloise newspaper column.

Here’s warning from Heloise about buying bags of frozen vegetables:

If the veggies did not stay frozen completely, they “thawed” a little and then froze into a block!

Here’s a tip for using cupcake liners to shape burgers:

I place one on the bottom, one on top and “squash” to flatten the burger to the desired thickness.

Those quotation marks don’t serve any purpose: Don’t use them.

The same principle applies to slang and colloquialisms. If you want to say that your child can’t go to sleep without his binky, and your sister thinks your macaroons are delish, use those words without apology. Or – if they bother you – substitute words you like better: pacifier, delicious.

To put it succinctly: “Ditch” the quotation marks. Oops! I meant that you should just ditch them.

 Heloise

                Heloise

Photo by Larry D. Moore CC BY-SA 3.0.

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3 thoughts on “How to Use Quotation Marks

  1. AvatarRobin Hill Blogs

    I know you said always, but I’m confused on this one part and I’ve been unable to find a direct answer. The American books I read do it both ways. If your quote withing a quote comes at the end of a sentence, is the period inside both of them. My initial thinking was yes, but lately I see it this way: “I’m leaving early,” said Jenny, “because ‘I have miles to go before I sleep’.” I always thought it should be this way: “I’m leaving early,” said Jenny, “because ‘I have miles to go before I sleep.’” And, if it’s the latter, should there be a space between the single and double quote mark? Great post. This has been driving me crazy!

  2. Avatarballroomdancer Post author

    Thanks for the thoughtful post! (Can you tell me the name of one of the books you consulted that gave a different answer from mine?) The way you’ve been seeing it lately is incorrect. You had it right: “because I have ‘miles to go before I sleep.'” There’s no space between the single and double quotation marks. Because the inverted comma is skinny, it might look like a space – but there shouldn’t be one.

  3. AvatarRobin Hill Blogs

    Thank you so much for your answer! I haven’t seen it in reference books. I’ve just seen it in works of fiction. The only book I consult for grammar (when I’m writing) is the Chicago Manual of Style, and if I remember correctly, it wasn’t clear on this specific point. It’s probably all the self-published indie author books I read! Even though they hire editors/proofreaders, that gets missed. It appears some of today’s editors/proofreaders have it wrong.

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