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Website of author and professional editor Rachelle M. N. Shaw. Find information about her books, her editing services, and her blog, From Mind to Paper: On Writing and Editing.

From Mind to Paper: On Writing and Editing

From Mind to Paper is a blog for writers, editors, and those interested in the English language. It covers a multitude of writing topics, from punctuation and grammar to plot development, character development, and world building. In addition to in-depth articles about various writing topics, this blog also has a number of series posts, which are currently being transformed into a nonfiction series on writing.

The Grammar Grind: Quotation Marks

Rachelle M. N. Shaw

Quotations marks are rather simple to understand. They are used to capture word for word what somebody has said. They can also be used to indicate sarcasm or to set off a term, though italics are often preferred in such cases. Implementing quotation marks is a bit trickier. Many people struggle with the specifics, such as determining whether to use single or double quotation marks and where to place punctuation surrounding quotations.

This post will address those issues as well as a few others. Please keep in mind all rules discussed follow U.S. standards for quotation marks. Other countries follow a different standard, particularly for single vs. double quotation marks and punctuation placement. The field of journalism (newspapers, magazines, online publication, etc.) also often uses different style guidelines.

Single vs. Double Quotation Marks
Choosing the incorrect type of quotation marks—single or double—is the primary error I see in articles and manuscripts. But the U.S. rules for single vs. double quotation marks are very simple and direct. Single quotation marks are used if and only if they are placed inside double quotation marks (i.e. when there is a quotation within a quotation).

Example: Mary said, "She told Fred, 'Get out!'"

Grammar Girl has an excellent poston this subject and also discusses the difference between the terms quote and quotation.

Curly vs. Straight Quotation Marks
Though few people really notice, there are actually two styles of quotation marks: curly quotation marks (”) and straight quotation marks ("). Curly quotation marks are used to set off dialogue, titles, terms, etc., while straight quotation marks are only used to indicate measurements—a single mark to indicate feet and a double mark to indicate inches. However, since they are often sleeker and are more pleasing to the eye, straight quotation marks are often used as a replacement for curly ones, especially on websites and printed publications such as magazines and journals. But why do so when using straight quotation marks is technically incorrect?

It all has to do with typography. When typographers design fonts, they choose the type of quotation marks that best fits with the overall appearance of the typeface. When they use straight quotation marks instead of curly ones, they are opting for a better-looking design over a minor technicality. Browse through a few well-designed websites, and you'll quickly see what I mean. The truth of the matter is, rules dictating a distinction between the two styles are becoming a thing of the past.

Punctuation Placement
Punctuation placement is another toughie for people to get straight. Again, this mainly has to do with stylistic differences between the U.S. and other countries. For the U.S., periods and commas always go insidequotation marks, no matter what the case. If you have a single quotation with a double quotation, the period or comma should go inside both sets of quotations.

Example 1: "Let's try the next room," suggested Sally. "I don't think this one is big enough."

Example 2: Greg explained, "She looked me in the eye and confessed, 'Not this time.'"

There also should never be more than one punctuation mark at the end of a sentence, even when quotation marks are used. If a quotation is a statement, use the appropriate comma or period—not both.

Semicolons and colons are next in the hierarchy of punctuation. They should always be placed outside the quotation marks and take precedence over commas and periods.

Example: You don't always have to say "no"; you could suggest other options instead.

Question marks and exclamation marks are at the top in the hierarchy of punctuation. They will always take precedence over all other forms of punctuation. When coupled with a quotation, they should be placed logically within the sentence.

Example 1: Why would Jane have said, "The sky is green, not blue"?

Example 2: Judy exclaimed, "You're such a prude!"

If the sentence itself is a question or an exclamation, place the ending punctuation outside the quotation marks (Example 1). If instead the quotation is a question or exclamation, place the ending punctuation inside the quotation marks (Example 2). Notice that there is still only one form of punctuation at the end.

Finally, never use quotation marks when paraphrasing. Quotation marks should only be used to capture word for word what someone has said. When determining whether or not a statement is being paraphrased, look for an occurrence of the word "that" before the stated material. If present, "that" signifies the speaker is using his/her own words to reiterate someone else's message; hence, no quotation marks should be used.

Example: Johnny stated that Sally got lost on her way to the park.

Quick-Tip Overview
1. Single quotation marks should only be used inside of double quotation marks.
2. Periods and commas always go inside quotation marks.
3. Semicolons and colons always go outside quotation marks.
4. Question marks and exclamation marks should be placed logically within the sentence.
5. Question marks and exclamation marks take precedence over all other forms of punctuation; semicolons and colons rank next, followed by periods and commas.
6. Never use quotation marks when paraphrasing.