How to use quotation marks like an expert

Quotation quandaries solved: how to use quotation marks like an expert

Okay, this is simple, right? Yes, but simple doesn’t always mean easy. Unless we’re talking about getting it wrong. Quotation marks, sometimes called inverted commas or speech marks, are one of the easiest punctuation marks to get wrong. The problem lies in the way they muscle around the punctuation marks that play the supporting role, especially those pesky commas, which can’t decide whether they want to be inside or outside.

If you want polished, professional prose, it’s important to get these things right. As with most matters of punctuation, a few simple rules will help clarify matters.

Single or double?

First, an important question: single or double quotes? Here at Grammar Factory we are passionately committed to the use of single quotation marks. We think they’re more elegant, and using singles means we don’t have to look for the shift key all the time. Singles are widely used in British English, while doubles remain the convention in American English. Neither is wrong, however, and it’s really just a question of taste. So use doubles if you like, but make sure you use them consistently.

Whether you decide to use doubles or singles, you’ll need to use your second preference when you place a quotation inside a quotation. In other words, if your default quote marks are single, you’ll need to use doubles to mark off the quotation.

‘Mum! Mum!’ called the excited grammar-nerd-in-training as she raced to greet her mother after school. ‘My teacher said my essay was “punctuated perfectly” and I got an A!’

Quoting others in your book

As their name suggests, the main function of quotation marks is to quote someone else’s words. A quotation is when you use someone’s exact words, so you shouldn’t use quotation marks if you’re just  paraphrasing or describing what someone said.

Quoting somebody is straightforward if the quote stands alone and isn’t attached in any way to a sentence you might have written – simply put all the words the speaker said and all the punctuation inside the quotation marks. This is what British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli said while correcting proofs of his last Parliamentary speech:

‘I will not go down to posterity talking bad grammar.’

If the quotation is part of a larger sentence, you need to introduce it with a punctuation mark; this is usually a comma, but a colon is suitable for more formal situations.

The character Eliza Doolittle in George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion famously said, ‘I don’t want to talk grammar, I want to talk like a lady.’

The dictionary defines ‘entrepreneur’ thus: ‘someone who organises and manages any enterprise, especially one involving considerable risk.’

If you take some words out of a quotation, you need to employ an ellipsis (three dots … no more), to indicate that one or more words have been omitted. When doing this, you must take care not to change the author’s meaning. Here’s a before and after example from Mark Cuban, Chairman of AXS TV.

‘It doesn’t matter how many times you fail. It doesn’t matter how many times you almost get it right. No one is going to know or care about your failures, and neither should you. All you have to do is learn from them and those around you because all that matters in business is that you get it right once. Then everyone can tell you how lucky you are.’

You can trim Mark’s words like this:

‘It doesn’t matter how many times you fail … All you have to do is learn from them [your failures]and those around you because all that matters in business is that you get it right once.’

If you want to add your own words in the middle of the quotation, put them in square brackets. Sometimes this is necessary to make sense of a quotation that is out of context, like the added ‘your failures’ in the previous example.

If you’ve got quite a long quotation you should set it out in an indented paragraph on its own, without any quotation marks. This is called a ‘block quotation’. Anything more than a couple of lines long should be set out this way.  Here’s an example from Steve Jobs.

Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.

Innies or outies?

No, I’m not talking about belly buttons. I refer to the vexed question of whether full stops and other punctuation marks go inside or outside the quotation marks. Well, it depends.

Most authorities agree that if the full stop, comma, question mark or exclamation mark is part of the quotation, then it should go inside the closing quotation mark. There should be no problem with quotations that stand alone but, when they’re part of a bigger sentence, you need to take care.

In the following example, Timothy is asking the question, so the question mark goes inside the closing quote mark.

‘For all of the most important things, the timing always sucks. Waiting for a good time to quit your job?’ asks author Timothy Ferriss in The 4-hour Work Week.

This situation is different, however, if the quotation is interrupted at a spot where there are no punctuation marks. Here’s a quote from Michael Jordan, first set out fully, and then with an interruption. In the second one, note that the commas are outside the quote marks because they’re not part of what Michael said.

‘I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life and that’s why I succeed.’

 ‘I’ve failed over and over again in my life’, says sports superstar Michael Jordan, ‘and that’s why I succeed.’

To sum up, if the punctuation mark is a part of the quotation, it goes inside the quotation marks. If it is something you’ve added, it goes outside the quotation marks. The key to preventing quotation marks from getting locked in a pitched battle for hotly contested sentence real estate is to declare a truce, look calmly at the situation, and use logic to determine who owns each comma, stop and mark.


An old-fashioned use of quotation marks is around the titles of books and other major works. This ceased to be the convention many years ago, and has a lot to do with changing technology. Using quotation marks made sense when manual typewriters were all we had to work with. Then, when electric typewriters came in, people started underlining titles. When word processors were invented, italics became the convention.

However, quotation marks are still used for short works: poems, essays, songs, and magazine and journal articles.

So it’s correct to refer to the article ‘Marketing Myopia’, but when you refer to the venerable publication in which it appears, you should write The Harvard Business Review.

Irony, oddities and emphasis

Quotation marks are often used to indicate sarcasm or irony.

‘Oh, so you think your singles look “elegant”, do you?’

Think carefully before using quotation marks like this. Less is more when it comes to irony or sarcasm. The more you do this, the less power the practice has, and you can also sound just plain nasty.

Quotation marks can also be used to introduce an unusual, unfamiliar, or recently coined term, but should be dropped for subsequent references.

Quotation marks that indicate irony or sarcasm are often referred to as ‘scare quotes’. You should take care, however, to use scare quotes sparingly.

You may be tempted to use quotation marks around colloquial and slang terms. This practice is recommended in a formal document, but if you’re writing in a conversational, informal style, it’s not necessary.

I asked my editor about the ‘low-down’ on quotation marks.

A final use for quotation marks is to distinguish or emphasise a particular word, although the same effect can also be achieved using italics.

The word ‘nerd’ has recently become a term of endearment, especially when it’s attached to the word ‘grammar’.

I you’re still confused, the best advice I can give is to stick to your guns. Quotation marks make editors sweat more blood and tears than any other punctuation mark, but as long as you employ logic and consistency, you can’t be accused of being wrong, only of having a different opinion.

This concludes the fifth and final blog in our ‘Punctuation 101’ series, and I hope this information and the tips in the earlier grammar posts have been helpful. However, if you find yourself staring at a blinking cursor, still terrorised by the dots and squiggles that exert so much power over your prose, don’t panic – just hire an editor!

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