Quotation Rules: Basics

“If it’s worth writing, it’s worth writing right.” Quotes can add a lot of character to your writing and also give you more credibility. They’re a very important element of expression both for creative and academic writing, but the rules for using and formatting them are detailed. This series of articles will discuss the ins and outs of quotations: the first covers the basics, the second explains special formatting, and the third gives instructions for writing dialogue.

The Meaning of Quotation Marks

Quotation marks represent either a direct quotation (telling exactly what someone said) or show that there is some uncertainty about the meaning of a word. Quotation marks should not be used to highlight an idea or stress a word, because the meaning will come off as sarcastic to readers in the know about quotation rules. If you want to stress a word, italicize it, place it in bold, or underline it instead.

For example, if you write to someone that your friend Jane tells the “best” stories ever, they may think you are being sarcastic about the meaning of the word best and conclude that Jane’s stories must be boring. This sarcastic usage is sometimes referred to as “scare quotes”.

You can, however, use them this way intentionally. For instance, if you see a disappointing movie, you could tell your friend it was really “interesting”. The feeling of this sentence then suggests that there is some suspicion or irony about the use of the word “interesting” that differs from the common understanding. Knowing this, what would you think if you saw a package that said the ingredients were 100% “natural”? Either the marketing team wasn’t aware of these rules, or you might want to look into just what they mean by “natural”….

Why are there two types of quotation marks?

Have you noticed that there are actually two types of quotation marks in English? There are double marks, like these “ ”, and then there are single marks, like these ‘ ’. Why do you need two sets?

The first set, the double quotation marks, are the standard ones. If you are writing a simple quotation, simply use these. However, the writing rules from the Associated Press state that you should use the single quotation marks within titles and headings.

Also, the titles of shorter works, like TV shows, magazines, or poems, should be placed in double quotation marks. Longer works, like books or movies, should be italicized without quotation marks.

Nested Quotes

Perhaps the biggest advantage of having two sets of quotes is the ability to nest them. What does this mean? If you are quoting someone who quoted someone else, then you essentially have one quotation inside another. How can you format this? With your two sets of quotation marks, of course!

Joey said, “The ranger’s motto is, ‘I’m here to get the job done.’ ”

Notice how the writer is quoting Joey, but Joey quoted someone else. According to American standards, the inner quotation, “I’m here to get the job done”, is placed in single quotes when nested, while the larger quotation is in double. (The British standard is just the opposite, however, with double quotes on the inner quotation and single on the outer.) Add a space between consecutive quotation marks to make them more visible, as at the end of the example.

Also notice that the whole quotation is preceded by a comma that comes after the attribution (Joey said). There is only one end punctuation mark used, a period. Because the innermost quote is an independent clause, the period is placed within all the quotation marks. Always place the period at the end of a complete idea.

If you somehow had a third quote double-nested within the sentence, you would just alternate and use the double quotation marks again for this new innermost phrase, single quotes for the mid-level phrase, and double quotes around the whole outermost quotation. The key is never to have the same type of marks next to each other, staggering double/single marks as needed.

Alice parroted, “I know you said ‘I think the song “Balloons” is too hyper.’ ”

End Punctuation for Quotes

Where you should put the punctuation marks depends on whether the quoted words are an independent clause and where you place the attribution (the part that tells you who said what). Note that general practice for American English places commas and periods at the end of any sentence inside all quotation marks, as above. However, British English places the marks according to whether they belong to the quoted material. This way preserves more meaning, so it will be explained next.

Lauren whispered, “I’m not sure the name of the song was ‘Lavender-blue’.”

In the example above, the innermost quote is just a noun, so the end punctuation goes at the end of the larger quote, inside only the double quotation marks. This is because the outer quote forms an independent clause that deserves its own punctuation while the inner quote does not. This also holds true in a simpler, single-quotation example:

The girl’s favorite poem was “Hope”.

Compare the first example, “I’m here to get the job done”, with the one above. The first requires end punctuation if it is at the end of a sentence because it is an independent clause. In contrast, “Hope” is only a title, so the end punctuation belongs to the sentence overall, not the quoted material.

Long Quotations (Academic Style)

If you are writing an academic quote that is longer than three lines, you should break it into a block quote. (The kind explained so far have been runin quotes.) The formatting for block quotes is quite different since no quotation marks are used at all. Instead, introduce the quote with an independent clause followed by a colon. For example, the history of William Strunk, who partly produced perhaps the most well-known guide to writing, is described on Wikipedia:

Cornell University English professor William Strunk, Jr. wrote The Elements of Style in 1918 and privately published it in 1919, for in-house use at the university. (Harcourt republished it in 52-page format in 1920.)

Each line of the quote should simply be indented a half-inch from the left margin. The continuing text of the paper would continue on the next line after the quote, as usual.

Practice Time

Add punctuation to the following sentences. Check you work at the end of the page. I realize these may be a bit difficult to understand without punctuation — which just tells you how important putting those little marks in the right places in your own writing is! It’s possible you could correctly punctuate these in ways other than the option included in the answers below, especially with #5 which is intended to let you practice formatting three nested quotes.

  1. Everyone knows the song Thriller
  2. The sign said no left turns
  3. The girl explained I think the lyrics say somewhere over the rainbow
  4. Timmy recited My teacher told me always look both ways before you cross the street
  5. Margaret explained I heard Mr. Thornton say I will let them in if Mr. Higgins announces I will end the labor union

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Possible Answers:

  1. Everyone knows the song “Thriller”.
  2. The sign said “no left turns”.
  3. The girl explained, “I think the lyrics say ‘somewhere over the rainbow’.”
  4. Timmy recited, “My teacher told me, ‘always look both ways before you cross the street.’ ”
  5. Margaret explained, “I heard Mr. Thornton say, ‘I will let them in if Mr. Higgins announces, “I will end the labor union.” ’ ”

3 thoughts on “Quotation Rules: Basics

Add yours

  1. Excellent series. I clicked the “First Post” link to get here from #2, but the third is still returning “Oops! That page can’t be found” when I click from your second. Hope that makes sense – lol.
    xx,
    mgh
    (Madelyn Griffith-Haynie – ADDandSoMuchMORE dot com)
    ADD/EFD Coach Training Field founder; ADD Coaching co-founder
    “It takes a village to educate a world!”

    Like

    1. Hmm, I think the reason this time around is that the third post has yet to be formally published. >.< I was expecting the permalink to be valid even so, but that seems not to be the case. Sorry for the hassle! It'll be out first thing Tuesday morning. ^_~

      Liked by 1 person

      1. 🙂 I learned that on my own site as well. As site-owners, WE can see the linked post but our followers can only see what we’ve published. Good thing, in my case, since I revisit and read queued posts and ALWAYS find typos I’d missed earlier. ::sigh::
        xx,
        mgh

        Like

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