RSS Feed

Tag Archives: commas

Quote Me: How to Use Quotation Marks


Quotation marks and naked ladies

The Strategic Placement of Quotation Marks

Quotation marks quarantine words from the rest of your sentence. They set words apart, and they usually have very good reasons for it. Here you’ll find some of these reasons, as well as tips on how to keep your quotation marks from becoming tangled up in your other punctuation.

Isn’t It Ironic?

Lots of people slap quotation marks around anything they want to emphasize, in the misguided belief that these marks exist to make words stand out. In fact, a single word in quotation marks usually means the opposite of what it says:

  • This member of the “weaker” sex routinely wrestled alligators before breakfast.

The words so-called express the same thing without quotation marks:

  • This member of the so-called weaker sex routinely wrestled alligators before breakfast.

So “fresh” apples suggests something wormy, while an “employment” opportunity probably involves a balaclava and a sawed-off shotgun.

Weird Words and Slang

Quotation marks set apart technical terms or obscure slang—anything the reader might find unfamiliar:

  • Upon achieving “satori,” or oneness with all beings, the monk ran to the pub and bought everyone drinks.

Don’t overdo it, though, as putting widely familiar terms in quotation marks will only make you look hopelessly out of touch:

  • As I “tweeted” on my phone and drank “chai” at my local cafe, I felt like quite the “hipster”! (Please avoid this, for everyone’s sake.)

When you’re writing about words, quotation marks clarify your subject:

  • “Antidisestablishmentarianism” is a word better known for its length than its meaning.

Or you can use italics instead:

  • The songwriter apparently plugged in baby whenever he found himself at a loss for words.

Speech, Speech!

Quotation marks, as we all know, show when someone is speaking:

  • “Don’t worry, darling,” she purred. “We’re all friends here.”

They also show when you’re repeating someone else’s words:

  • In The Little Prince Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wrote, “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

If you decide to set apart quoted text in some other way—by indenting it, for example—quotation marks become overkill and should be left out:

  • In The Little Prince Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wrote,

It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.

Put quotation marks around an expression to keep it from blundering confusingly through the rest of your sentence:

  • Even his dog gave him the old “It’s not you, it’s me” routine.
  • Her screenplay had the usual “Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy gets eaten by zombies” plotline.

Titles of articles, essays, short stories, poems, songs, book chapters, and television episodes should be enclosed in quotation marks (more on this here):

  • “Law and Disorder” is the infamous Brady Bunch episode in which the actor who played Greg was stoned during filming.

When Punctuation Collides

Using quotation marks with other punctuation can be tricky, and it doesn’t help that there are two sets of rules—US and British. When a comma or a period is not part of the quoted matter, British writers leave it outside the quotation marks. American writers, on the other hand, like to keep commas and periods inside the quotation marks under all circumstances. Canadians, of course, are free to be confused by both systems.

  • British rules: One teacher called her “impossible”, another “diabolical”.
  • US rules: One teacher called her “impossible,” another “diabolical.”
  • British & US: The aliens announced, “We’ve come for your poodles.”
  • British & US: “I’ve made more balloon animals than you’ve had hot dinners,” the clown said wearily.

In the third example, the final period is part of the aliens’ sentence, so even the Brits keep it inside the quotation marks. Similarly, in the fourth example the comma after dinners stands in for the final period of the clown’s speech.

Note that a comma goes before speech (as in the third example) but isn’t needed for quoted words that flow easily with the rest of the sentence (as in the first and second examples). If you’re not sure whether to use a comma or not, read the sentence out loud and put in a comma if you naturally pause:

  • He never would have told her to “keep the home fires burning” if he’d known her history of pyromania.
  • He told her, “Playing with matches is all very well, but a good insurance policy will keep you warm at night.”

Fortunately, all nationalities agree that exclamation points, question marks, colons, semicolons, and dashes should snuggle up to the words they’re attached to. That is, they belong inside quotation marks if they’re part of the quoted matter and outside if not:

  • Her essay in Comics Today, “Pow! Zap!”, was well received by fanboys.
  • I can’t believe they offered him a lifetime supply of chocolate and he said “no”!
  • How can you possibly forget the words to “Kumbayah”?
  • She asked wistfully, “Wherefore art thou Romeo?” though her boyfriend’s name was Bob.
  • For the next class read “From Weapon to Toy: A Concise History of the Yo-yo” in Modern Collector; the pamphlet “Walking the Dog and Other Tricks”; and “Yo-Yo Ma: American Cellist.”
  • Remember those touching words from Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”: “Scaramouche! Scaramouche! Will you do the fandango?”
  • “Lice have certainly”—he paused and scratched his head—“never been a problem at this school.”

If you find yourself in a situation where you need two sets of quotation marks at once, use single marks for the inside pair:

  • “I just saw him giving his ‘sister’ a snog!” she snapped.

Quotation marks are pretty straightforward. Just remember to be consistent—pick a set of rules and stick to them like tar—and to save your punctuation for when you really need it.


Comma Chameleon



Comma vs. Tsunami

The uses of the comma are almost endless. (Or maybe it’s just my blog posts that seem endless.) Today I give you a grab bag of comma deployments, including introductory clauses, multiple adjectives, places, dates, and more. Dig in!

Introductory Phrases: The Big Tease

Some phrases beg the question, then what? When such a phrase is poised, oozing anticipation, before the subject of your sentence, corral it with a comma. (If you want to get grammatical, these phrases are dependent clauses, which start with if; adverbial phrases, which start with adverbs; and participial phrases, which start with participles.)

  • If I told you the recipe, I’d have to kill you.
  • After they all stumbled home at dawn, I sneaked into the kitchen and ate the leftover cake.
  • Having recently lost his mind, the Duke was untroubled by anxiety over his missing schnauzer.

With short adverbial phrases the comma can be left out:

  • On Tuesday I went mad.

If the phrase comes after the subject, you don’t need a comma…

  • I’d have to kill you if I told you the recipe.
  • I sneaked into the kitchen and ate the leftover cake after they all stumbled home at dawn.

…except when it’s a participial phrase:

  • The Duke was untroubled by anxiety over his missing schnauzer, having recently lost his mind.
  • The Duke, having recently lost his mind, was untroubled by anxiety over his missing schnauzer.

Adjective Conga Lines

When you have two or more adjectives describing the same word, put a comma between them:

  • The demon made a dedicated, insinuating telemarketer.

But there are times when you don’t want to sprinkle commas in your adjective line:

  • He always came to work wearing a bright red power tie.

How can you tell the difference? Try plopping the word and between adjectives. If it works, use a comma; if it doesn’t, don’t.

  • The demon made a dedicated and insinuating telemarketer. (It works: insert comma.)
  • He always came to work wearing a bright and red and power tie. (No, no, no. Skip the commas.)

Places and Dates

When place names have more than one part to them—for example, city and country—the second part needs commas on either side:

  • She’s going to a philatelists’ convention in Gdansk, Poland, next month.
  • Walla Walla, Washington, is only funny if you don’t live there.

The same principle applies to dates:

  • The lovers met on Thursday, May 6, at the garbage dump.
  • On June 23, 1982, I made a pact with Mephistopheles.

But certain date configurations don’t take commas. The British-style date (day, month, year) is comma-less. So is the month and year only, or a well-known holiday plus year:

  • Mr. Bond and his attractive companion will land at the villain’s secret island lair on 12 August 1964.
  • If all goes as planned, our new adopt-a-rodent program will be running by May 2010.
  • New Year’s Day 2000 was a bit of a letdown for end-of-the-world enthusiasts.

Oh No You Don’t!

Introductory words such as yes, no, oh, and well should be followed by a comma:

  • Yes, I do think it was tasteless of you to ask them about wife-swapping.
  • Oh, I never feed the wolves after dark.
  • No, you won’t like what you find in my basement.
  • Well, I meant to bring dessert, but I got hungry on the way over.
  • Man, these flashbacks are really distracting.

Unless, that is, they’re part of a common expression or informal phrase:

  • Oh yeah?
  • Oh my God.
  • Oh no, not another apocalypse!
  • No I won’t!
  • Yes you will!

Also, a question contained inside a sentence can be set off by a comma:

  • The question was, how many hotdogs would satisfy the Ogopogo?

Smoothing the Reader’s Way

Finally, the most important function of the comma is to clarify your meaning, so use one wherever it will keep your reader from becoming confused:

  • She recognized the murderer as he rose from the table, and pointed a trembling finger. (Notice how this sentence’s meaning changes without the comma.)
  • The fleas hopped in, in groups of three.

All these rules may seem a lot to wrap your head around, but a well-placed comma can make all the difference in your writing. Remember: If you’re good to the comma, the comma will be good to you.

Sideshow Commas


Girl With a Pearl Comma

Commas are grammar’s sheepdogs: they keep the various elements of a sentence from running off on their own and causing confusion and panic.

Commas on the Side

Commas are used to set apart non-essential pieces of your sentences. Words such as however and therefore need to be contained by a pair of commas to show that you’re interrupting your sentence with a bit of side business. Like an intermission, your aside may be interesting, but you don’t need it to understand the play.

  • The Countess, however, refused to be seen in a Volkswagen.
  • The chewing gum, therefore, was stuck to the ceiling.
  • Many hobbies can be fulfilling, for example, stamp collecting, dental-floss macramé, and sugar-cube carving.
  • The giant Madagascar hissing cockroach, I understand, makes a lovely companion.
  • Kansas, she says, is the name of the star.
  • The double-action shotgun, not diplomacy, was her forte.
  • Quality food, including poutine, is best enjoyed after a night of heavy drinking.

This rule also applies when you’re addressing someone directly:

  • Fernando, I don’t think you understand what this eggplant means to me.
  • Grab a flamingo, everyone, and start playing!
  • Dammit, Jim, I’m a doctor, not a go-go dancer!

Sometimes it’s not clear whether the phrase in question is side business or not. (This is when grammarians start throwing around the terms restrictive clause and nonrestrictive clause.) Take, for example, this sentence:

  • My vampire, Duane, lives in the basement rec room.

This is fine if you only have one vampire; Duane can be removed from the sentence without changing its meaning. But what if you have a harem of vampires stashed in your house? You need the word Duane so your reader won’t think you’re talking about your other vampires, Joe, Hannah, and Billy Bob. When the phrase is needed to understand your sentence (that is, when it’s a restrictive clause), don’t use commas.

  • My vampire Duane lives in the basement rec room. (I have multiple vampires.)
  • My romance novel, Scottish Lords with Bulging Calf Muscles, is a real bodice-ripper. (This is my only romance novel. Take out the title and the sentence says the same thing.)
  • My romance novel Scottish Lords with Bulging Calf Muscles is a real bodice-ripper. (I have written other romance novels, some of which feature other kinds of lords with different muscles. Remove the title and you won’t know which bodice-ripper I’m talking about.)
  • She carried the shotgun not so much to shoot people as to scare them witless.
  • If you insist on wandering in the woods during the full moon and are therefore bitten by a werewolf, don’t expect sympathy from me.

Sometimes grammarians talk about the that/which rule. This rule decrees that only necessary (restrictive) clauses use the word that, and only side business (nonrestrictive) clauses use the word which.

  • The aliens that invaded my bathtub have used all the soap. (Not to be confused with the aliens in my pantry.)
  • The alien craft, which landed on Tuesday, makes a striking lawn ornament. (Only one alien craft has ever landed in these parts.)

Of course, the British blithely ignore the that/which rule and use which whenever they damn well please. You can too, as long as you’re consistent.

Next week: commas and phrases and clauses, oh my!

Commas, Commas Everywhere



The Mystical, Magical Comma

Like the Martha Stewarts of grammar, commas keep your sentences organized. Sometimes commas are optional, but there are times when you must use them or risk looking ignorant or gauche. So dust off your tux, straighten your moustache, and follow me into the Casino Royale of comma rules.

Commas and Conjunctions: Like Pancakes and Maple Syrup

Use a comma before a conjunction. What’s a conjunction? It’s a word like and, but, or yet that joins two sections of a sentence the way a hitch joins two train cars.

  • I’ve trained the squirrels outside my window to do back flips and pyramids, and we’ll be taking our act on the road next week.
  • He bought the jester’s costume and the floppy hat, but I can’t help feeling his heart isn’t in it.

If a sentence is short and its parts are closely related, you can leave out the comma:

  • I dropped her off at the racetrack and I haven’t seen her since.

Whatever you do, don’t stick a comma in your sentence instead of a conjunction. It simply can’t take the weight, and your sentence will go off the rails:

  • I’m going as a cephalopod, I’ve already bought the suction cups.

The above comma needs to be either helped by a conjunction or replaced by a semicolon, which is stronger than a comma:

  • I’m going as a cephalopod, and I’ve already bought the suction cups.
  • I’m going as a cephalopod; I’ve already bought the suction cups.

Or if you’re a Hemingway-esque writer who likes ’em short and choppy, you can divide your sentence into two:

  • I’m going as a cephalopod. I’ve already bought the suction cups.

Try not to get overexcited and slap a comma in front of every and or but you see. Conjunctions can be sneaky, and sometimes you’ll find them playing different roles. They don’t need commas when they’re not acting as hitches. Consider the following sentence:

  • I wanted to go to the orgy but couldn’t find any whipping cream.

The second train car (“couldn’t find any whipping cream”) doesn’t have a subject—without the first car we don’t know who was at a loss for dairy products. The I from the first part is doing double duty for both verbs, wanted and couldn’t, which makes this one train car, not two (or a compound predicate if you want to get technical).

  • I wanted to go to the orgy, but I couldn’t find any whipping cream.

In this case we have two subjects and two verbs, which means we have two train cars (or independent clauses) joined by a hitch. As such, this but can take a comma (although the sentence is short enough to go without one if you wish).

Lists: Keeping Things in Line

When your sentence has a list of three or more, use commas to keep them separated and avoid fights:

  • According to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the ingredients for a Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster include Ol’ Janx Spirit, seawater from Santraginus V, Arcturan mega-gin, Fallian marsh gas, Qualactin hypermint extract, the tooth of an Algolian suntiger, zamphour, and an olive.
  • A mouse, a duck, a dodo, a lory, an eaglet, and several other curious creatures ended up in the pool of tears with Alice.

You’ll notice both these sentences have a comma before the final and. This is called a serial comma (like a serial killer, only nicer) and it is completely optional. Whether you decide to use it or not use it, be consistent. Dropping or adding it halfway through your writing makes you look either sloppy or just plain confused.

Grammar’s Romeo and Juliet

Avoid the mysteriously common error of putting a comma between the subject and the verb:

  • People who live in glass houses, shouldn’t clean in the buff.

The subject (people) and verb (shouldn’t) are like lovers who long to be together. It would be wrong to come between them.

  • People who live in glass houses shouldn’t clean in the buff.

Next week: sideshow commas, the that/which rule, vampires, and go-go dancers.