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.
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.