How to use quotation marks

This is a general overview of current usage and guidelines.

Quotation marks, known as inverted commas in British English, can be single (‘) or double (“). Unfortunately, WordPress is determined to curl them, sometimes the wrong way, but no matter. In British English, single marks are traditionally preferred, with double marks inside them as required, then single again and so on:

‘He asked me, “Will you pick up a copy of ‘The Echo’ for me?'”

The reverse order is equally standard, though, especially when conspicuousness is desired. Font type is a factor. Double marks outside are always preferred in U.S. English:

“She said to me, ‘What does “autopoiesis” mean, anyway?'”

Both systems are fine, as long as you are internally consistent. Quotation marks are used in the following ways:

1. When you quote someone directly:

Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “I hate quotations. Tell me what you know.”

2. When you refer to song titles, short stories, short poems, book chapters, plays, magazine and journal articles, and radio and television programmes:

David Attenborough’s “Trials of Life”
“To the Evening Star” by William Blake

3. When you refer to a word as a word, or to a phrase as a phrase:

The word “television” is a hybrid of Greek and Latin forms.
In America, inverted commas are called “quotation marks”.
What is the origin of the phrase “skeleton in the closet”?

Italics can also be used for this purpose. I use them throughout this blog because they are preferable to excessive inverted commas.

4. When you introduce a new, unfamiliar or technical word:

“Avidya”, meaning ignorance of ultimate reality, is related to “maya”, which is the false perception of separateness.

“The designation ‘aperspectival,’ in consequence, expresses a process of liberation from the exclusive validity of perspectival and unperspectival, as well as pre-perspectival limitations.” (Jean Gebser, The Ever-Present Origin)

Once such a term has been introduced, it is assimilated; the inverted commas are not needed after this.

5. For nicknames, e.g. Jalacy “Screamin’ Jay” Hawkins, James “Wild Bill” Hickok.

6. As “scare quotes”. These are placed around words or phrases from which writers want to distance themselves. Maybe the usage is colloquial, slang, technical, inaccurate, euphemistic, misleading or inappropriate, and the writer wants to distance him- or herself from it, or to suggest irony, scepticism, distaste or outright derision:

Death metal “music” (The writer sarcastically questions its musicality.)
Pedestrian “facilities” (The writer implies that they don’t necessarily facilitate walking.)
“Josephine” and “Daphne” join an all-female band to escape the mob. (The writer signals false identities in the film Some Like it Hot.)
The sun “goes down” in the west. (The writer draws attention to the conventional perception of the sun’s apparent downward movement relative to an earth-bound observer.)

quotation_marksSince scare quotes can and do get out of hand, some style guides advise against using them, or at least against doing so excessively. The Wall Street Journal has been criticised for “promiscuous use” of these marks as a way to convey political cynicism. The Oxford Manual of Style provides a couple of examples in which scare quotes function “simply as a replacement for a sniffy ‘so-called’, and should be used as rarely”. It contends that they are used “merely to hold up a word for inspection, as if by tongs, providing a cordon sanitaire between the word and the writer’s finer sensibilities.”

Sir Ernest Gowers, writing in Plain Words, takes a similar view:

Few common things are more difficult than to find the right word, and many people are too lazy to try. This form of indolence sometimes betrays itself by a copious use of inverted commas. “I know this is not quite the right word”, the inverted commas seem to say, “but I can’t be bothered to think of a better”; or, “please note that I am using this word facetiously”; or, “don’t think I don’t know that this is a cliché”. If the word is the right one, do not be ashamed of it: if it is the wrong one, do not use it.

Nonetheless, scare quotes remain very popular, especially in journalism.

Quotation marks and punctuation

In American English, full stops and commas go inside quotation marks regardless of the sense, i.e. whether or not they are part of the quote. Colons and semicolons go outside, and the position of question marks and exclamation marks depends on the sense.

In British English, the position of full stops, commas, colons, semicolons, question marks and exclamation marks relative to inverted commas generally depends on the sense. The emphasis is on grammatical logic – see the quote by Gowers, above, for examples. Some British publishers and authors prefer American convention, always placing full stops inside inverted commas for aesthetic reasons, but most advice on British English usage follows Fowler.

A completely logical system seems impossible, such as when certain multiple stops appear (e.g. “Were you asked ‘Why did you do it?’?”). Obviously one of these question marks has to go, but there isn’t unanimous agreement on which. A detailed examination of inverted commas and punctuation would require several pages. The most important things are to avoid confusing the reader and to avoid changing the meaning of the quote.

Quotation marks are commonly misused to emphasise the quoted material. Photographic examples abound online. I’ll write more about this kind of misuse at a later date.

[image source]
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12 Responses to How to use quotation marks

  1. [...] could mislead a reader upon first glance, and pulverisation is quite a technical word, hence the scare quotes in the heading and the elegant variation of “blow captives to atoms” in the [...]

  2. [...] My post on how to use quotation marks correctly is here. [...]

  3. nikki says:

    good examples what about

    My mom says, “Never wear anything but a suit to a funeral or a wedding.”

    would a comma go behind says?

  4. Stan says:

    Nikki: The comma is perfect where it is. A colon would also be fine.

  5. I rely on the ‘Penguin Guide to Punctuation’ by R L Trask. On quotation marks, he points out how idiotic (his own word) it would be to place the full stop inside the closing quotation mark in:

    General Sedgwick’s last words to his worried staff were ‘Don’t worry, boys, they couldn’t hit an elephant as this dist–’.

  6. Stan says:

    Good example, Barrie! I must say, I prefer the BrE style on this point. It allows more room to manoeuvre, more room for common sense.

  7. [...] probably heard of scare quotes, well here’s scary [...]

  8. natasha says:

    Where do you put quotation mark for.
    The lost scouts screamed, how will we ever get out of here?

  9. Stan says:

    Around the quotation, Natasha:

    The lost scouts screamed, “How will we ever get out of here?”

  10. Raquel says:

    I need a sentence about the flag using quotation marks

  11. Thank you so much for this information. I am helping a friend edit her thesis and this helped.

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