Punctuation Marks: Quotation Marks

punctuation marks quotation marksThe placement of quotation marks perplexes people. Do they go inside or outside of other punctuation marks, like periods and commas? Should they be used to set off titles or to emphasize certain words?

Quotation marks are used for a variety of purposes, including dialogue, quotes, and titles. Many people also use quotation marks to emphasize words and phrases.

One of the most common questions about quotation marks deals with their usage with titles. Are quotation marks appropriate for setting off the title of a book or is it better to use italics, underlining, or some other punctuation mark or formatting?


Quotation Marks and Dialogue

She said, “I’m writing a book.”

“I’m working on it,” she whispered, “but it’s going to take awhile.”

Then she asked, “Are you going to write one too?”

When using quotation marks to portray dialogue, the quotes go outside of the dialogue’s punctuation. Also, dialogue is almost always preceded by a comma (i.e. she said, “something”). In formal documents, the comma may be replaced by a colon (i.e. she said: this is what she said). The dialogue itself should follow the rules of grammar, with the first letter of sentences capitalized, and the appropriate terminal punctuation makrs (period, question mark, etc.) as well.

Using Quotes for Emphasis

I was wondering if her “book” was going to be any good.

Should you use quotes for emphasis? No. Absolutely not. It’s an amateur maneuver, and you can only get away with it successfully if you’re a master of punctuation marks. Don’t use quotation marks in this manner. If you must emphasize a word, use italics or bold. Better yet, let the way you structure your sentence provide natural emphasis where needed. Never use quotes to emphasize words and phrases. Repeat that three times, then rinse.

Setting Off Titles with Quotation Marks

Most titles should be italicized. But in some cases quotation marks are more appropriate, particularly when using a combination of titles from a single publication, e.g., a magazine title plus article titles or a book title plus chapter titles.

For example, you might be referring to an article in a magazine. You don’t want to use italics to set off the name of the magazine and the title of the article. In this case, you’ll probably use italics for the name of the magazine and put the article title in quotes. In fact, quotation marks are often used for the titles of shorter works: articles, chapter titles, short stories, and essays. I would italicize the name of my blog, Writing Forward but use quotations marks for the title of a post, such as “Punctuation Marks: Quotation Marks.”

Using quotation marks for titles is not grammatically incorrect, however. It’s actually a style issue, so if you’re not sure how to format your titles, check your style guide.

British vs. American English

It’s interesting to note that British writing differs greatly when it comes to placing other punctuation marks inside or outside quotation marks. In fact, a British quote looks like this:

She said, “I’m writing a book”.

This looks incredibly strange to me, and I’m quite surprised that I never knew about this difference until just a couple of years ago. It’s worth noting, however, and it’s also worth keeping in mind that different English speaking regions have different rules about grammar and punctuation, which is good to know in this age of globalization.

Summary

A few final tips for using quotation marks:

  • For American English, place end punctuation marks inside the quotes.
  • Do not use quotation marks to emphasize words or phrases.
  • Use italics for the names of books and magazines, and use quotation marks for titles of shorter, embedded pieces, such as articles and chapters.

Do you have any questions about quotation marks or any other punctuation marks? Leave a comment and if I don’t know the answer, I’ll dig it up for you!

About Melissa Donovan
Melissa Donovan is a website designer and copywriter. She writes fiction and poetry and is the founder and editor of Writing Forward, a blog packed with creative writing tips and ideas.

Comments

49 Responses to “Punctuation Marks: Quotation Marks”

  1. Sharp Words says:

    Good article!

    You’re not quite correct on British English usage though; for dialogue in a story, it would actually be:
    She said, “I’m writing a book.”

    However, the example you gave would be correct for quoted material – for instance:
    In Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare writes “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet”.

    I recommend something like the Oxford Manual of Style for anyone who wants to know more about how punctuation works in different regional variants of English.

  2. @Sharp Words, Ah, thank you. I’m definitely not that knowledgeable of British English (obviously). I’m glad you’ve pointed out how dialog is treated there, because I kept thinking that I’m sure I’ve read British novels, and why didn’t I notice the quotes placed differently? Now it all makes sense. Thank you!

  3. Sharon says:

    In the phrase “dialog, quotes, and titles” in the second paragraph, wouldn’t the word quotations be the correct word rather than quotes, as quote is a verb and quotation is a noun?

  4. Kay says:

    Question about quotation marks used for chapter titles: If the chapter title falls at the end of a sentence, or before a comma, does the punctuation go inside the quotation marks? I have seen several writers do this. My thinking is that the chapter title does NOT include punctuation, so, unlike actual quoted speech, the punctuation is outside of the quotation marks. Example: The first chapter is “How to Tie Knots”. Or, would it be, as many writers do: The first chapter is “How to Tie Knots.”

    • In America, we put punctuation inside the quotation marks. British English puts punctuation marks outside of the quotations. I was grateful when I learned this because at one point I remember being quite concerned about all the terminal punctuation marks outside the quotations marks I was seeing on the Internet. I kept thinking that this was pretty basic stuff, and I saw it coming from a few astute writers. Then, I learned that it is correct placement in Britain, and I was relieved. So, here’s your answer:

      If you are writing American English: The first chapter is “How to Tie Knots.”
      If you are writing British English: The first chapter is “How to Tie Knots”.

      This formatting is applied whether the terminal punctuation mark is part of the text in quotes or not. The above examples would the be same if the text within the quotation marks was dialogue. If you’re writing for a mixed audience (e.g. online), then you have to make a judgment call. You might choose based on the majority of your readership or you might simply go with which way feels or looks best to you. Good luck!

    • Pam says:

      I think I know what you actually mean, Kay. Suppose you were saying: “Is the last chapter of the book called “How to Tie Knots”? It seems that the question mark should NOT be inside the quotation marks because the title is not “How to Tie Knots?” but “How to Tie Knots.” I think I prefer the Brit way!

      • Marc says:

        It’s a little complicated. In American typesetting, the rule is that smaller punctuation marks like periods and commas go inside quotation marks while larger punctuation marks like question marks and exclamation points go outside the quotation marks. There’s no real logic behind it. It’s actually a matter of aesthetics.

        For example, you can write either:

        I read a brief essay titled “How to Tie Knots.”

        or

        Have you read “How to Tie Knots”?

  5. Hannan says:

    THANK YOU for posting this! :) very helpful

  6. .. says:

    o_o can you put a quotation if your thinking something?? (Example:”hmm thats weird” I thought to myself) or this one (hmm thats weird, I thought to myself) which is correct?

    • As far as I know, there isn’t a right or wrong way to format thoughts. However, most writers use italics since that’s a good way to avoid confusion between internal dialogue (thoughts) and external dialogue (conversation). Example:

      Hmm, that’s weird, I thought to myself.

      • Tamie says:

        Glad that the subject of internal dialogue was brought up.

        In external dialogue, a line might be as follows:
        “I’m bored,” she said.
        She said, “I’m bored.”
        “I’m bored,” she said, “out of my skull.”
        In either case, the character’s statement has a terminating punctuation (comma in the first, period in the second, both in the third), which is contained INSIDE the quote marks…independent of whether that punctuation would have been used if the dialogue were formatted as a complete sentence (as the comma in the third example).

        In INTERNAL dialogue, I would not use quote marks; rather I would italicize the dialogue.
        My question is thus:
        Do I format the terminating punctuation with the dialogue in the internal, just as I would include it within quotes in the external? Or do I count it and format it as “narration?”

        Chances are, not too many people are going to notice which one I use, but I’d just gone through one of my stories and noticed that I’d been inconsistent in this concern.

        If I have two or more statements that are not separated by narration, THAT punctuation will be formatted according to the dialogue, of course, as in:
        I’M BORED. I’M BORED OUT OF MY SKULL, she thought.
        The first period would remain formatted with the dialogue, but what about that comma?

        I’ve seen so many pages that discuss internal dialogue, AND discuss how to punctuate dialogue, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a combination.

        Thank you.

        • I think that if you’re including the phrase “she thought,” then you need the comma:

          I’m bored. I’m bored out of my skull, she thought.

          However, once you establish that italicized text indicates internal dialogue, you may not need “she thought” or the comma. You do, however, need to be sure it’s clear which character the internal dialogue belongs to:

          Lacy sighed. I’m bored. I’m bored out of my skull.

      • Cheryl says:

        Thank you for addressing this topic. I am writing a children’s story that is primarily written through the character’s thoughts. For example, S thought, “what would be better?” Or, “this is the best!”,S thought. I gather I should be using italics instead of quotation marks and watching where I place my punctuation marks. I hope I understood your response correctly. Thank you.

        • I generally advise against writing a story through characters’ thoughts. Readers usually prefer stories that are told through action and dialogue. My recommendation would be to format the thought dialogue without the tags. For example: What would be better? Note that “S thought” is not included. Having said that, please consider this a very loose suggestion. I would need to review your text and overall concept in full in order to make a specific recommendation.

    • Here are the ways I write internal thoughts:

      I was just thinking how bored I was, but he wouldn’t shut up.

      I was thinking: If he keeps talking, I’m gonna shoot myself.

      Either I include it as a description in a sentence or I use the colon to separate it. I too don’t like to use quotes because a fast skim reader may see the quotes and think it was said out loud.

      …Useful topic Melissa!…

  7. James B says:

    Melissa, thank you so much for all of the helpful info.

    I’m actually writing a short story, but I’ve never been a fan of the way this looks — “How are you?” she asked.

    Does anyone (including Melissa) know of a way to avoid using quotes altogether in creative fiction dialogue? I have some ideas, but nothing that I feel really works.

    Thank you everyone.

    • Yes! Actually, I have seen writers forgo dialogue quotes altogether and use italics instead. In that case, the challenge is to make sure that it’s very clear who is speaking. I would try some different methods and see if any of them work for your project. If they don’t, then you may have to come back to standard quotation marks. Best of luck to you!

  8. Alterity says:

    It’s easy – everything goes within the quotation marks. The best way to learn is to practice writing dialogue.

    • Unless you’re British, in which case everything (and by “everything,” I mean terminal punctuation marks) goes outside of the quotation marks. You’ve summed up how I first ingrained punctuation and quotation marks ;)

  9. PWW says:

    I love the article, but I still have trouble with question marks in dialogue. There’s no difficulty when the question finishes the sentence as in: She asked, “What do you want?” The difficult bit is when the sentence is reversed: “What do you want?” she asked. Although this looks right doesn’t the question mark denote the end of the sentence. If so, shouldn’t the following ‘she’ begin with a capital?

    • You’ve got it right. A question mark in dialogue is formatted as follows: “What do you want?” she asked. If the dialogue had been anything other than a question, the question mark would be replaced with a comma, even if the dialogue was a full sentence. You might pick up a grammar or style guide that you can reference when these types of questions arise. Good luck!

  10. Sharolyn says:

    Hi, Melissa,

    A friend and I are editing/critiquing each other’s fiction novels. In my work, my character says:

    “None of them had a patient of my husband’s description. Lydia called back and said there were no accident reported, so I decided to drive over here to his office and see if he might have broken down between here and home. Nothing.

    “I just arrived here when Corporal Barber and his partner pulled up.”

    My friend says that I should close quotations after the word nothing. Since my character continues what she is saying on the next line, I know that I should not close the quotation. I’ve tried to look it up on several websites to show her, but I can’t find it. What is the truth?

    • Hi Sharolyn, Your friend has the right idea. Dialogue should end with a paragraph via closing quotation marks. If the dialogue continues at the start of the next paragraph, that next paragraph should commence with opening quotation marks. Note that I am referring to paragraphs, not “lines.” The proper way to punctuate your example would be as follows:

      “None of them had a patient of my husband’s description. Lydia called back and said there were no accident reported, so I decided to drive over here to his office and see if he might have broken down between here and home. Nothing.”

      “I just arrived here when Corporal Barber and his partner pulled up.”

      As a side note, the word “accident” should be pluralized. You might want to check a few novels to see how dialogue and punctuation marks are carried out with similar constructs.

      • Sharolyn Wells says:

        I just found this on a website:

        6.If a quotation spills out over more than one paragraph, don’t use end quotes at the close of the first paragraph. Use them only when a character is done speaking.

        • Sniffy says:

          I would agree with Sharolyn on this one. If you close the quotes at the end of a paragraph and then open them again at the beginning of the next, it could appear that someone else is speaking.

        • Jess says:

          I think Sharlyn proves right in this case. in many instances, I have seen this appear in books, and it also makes sense.

        • Yes, I’ve seen it done both ways. Whichever way you choose, make sure it’s consistent throughout the manuscript. A good way to ensure consistency is to use a style guide (I recommend Chicago Manual of Style).

  11. Julie Rolfe says:

    I have a question. I quoted the Buddha’s Eightfold Path in an assignment.
    I said:
    The Buddha’s Eightfold Path includes; right view, right aim, right speech, right action, right living, right effort, right mindfulness. Just a list… and I gave him credit. Should I have put that in quotations? Should I put the Ten Commandments in quotations? I could not find that answer to this anywhere, and the list part itself was tagged as plagiarism by Safe Assign. It seems someone else listed the same path on essays.com or some such site. Safe Assign is wrong, of course!!! I have never even thought of cheating that way. I memorized that information from my notes in the course… Anyway, I need to know if I was wrong.

    • Hi Julie, Your question is a little beyond the scope of comment discussion. How you format quotations depends on where you are publishing or submitting your work. Generally, you should ask an authority figure (teacher, boss, editor) which style guide you should be using, then consult that guide to find out how to properly format a piece of writing. If there is no style guide established, I recommend using The Chicago Manual of Style, which you’ll find in most bookstores and on Amazon.

  12. Kenn Loewen says:

    I’m editing a kid’s magazine. The format that they have chosen to go with is to emphasize by use of quotation marks. eg: Learning Objective: Practice the usage of “behind.” They use North American English, and thus should follow NA grammar rules, but do you think that the period should still fall within the quotation marks when the period is not part of what is being emphasized with the quotation marks? It’s pretty tough to find punctuation rules when using quotations marks for emphasis. I would rather just italicize them, but they’re the boss.

    • Learning Objective: Practice the usage of “behind.”

      That is exactly how I would format it. In the U.S. we rarely put terminal punctuation marks outside the closing quotation marks.

  13. Bee says:

    If the title of the magazine appears in an italicized sentence, then do you just leave it italicized (along with the rest of the sentence)…or put it in quotes to stand out?

    • A title should either be in quotes or italics, not both. Whether you use quotes or italics depends on the style guide that you’re using. Normally, I would put the magazine title in italics and the title of an article within the magazine in quotes. Good luck!

  14. Pat Williams says:

    If quoted paragraphs do not fit on one page and at the end of first page (continued on back page) is typed, does one place quotation marks before (continued on back page) and on back page start with quotation marks to end it, or just put them at the beginning and very end of entire quote,only? Please advise, Thanks.

    • Pat, it really depends on the publication you’re writing for. If this is for a class, you should consult with your instructor or the style guide that he or she assigned. Most style guides mandate that you do not include quotes at all on quoted material that exceeds two lines. Instead, you indent the entire quote and leave the marks out. There are different rules if the quotes designate dialogue. You would not issue an extra set of quotation marks because the quoted material continues on the next page. The reader knows that the first marks open the quotation and the quotation does not close until the closing marks. Again, there are exceptions and the rules vary depending on style, form, and publication. Dialogue, in particular, is handled differently.

  15. John Henry Brebbia says:

    In the novel form, Is it proper to place dialogue in italics, without placing quotes around the italicized dialogue. This would be for emphasis and not general use throughout the manuscript.

    • Generally, italics should not be used to emphasize or identify dialogue. So no, it is not proper to format it with italics and without quotation marks. The dialogue should speak for itself (no pun intended) and italics for emphasis should be used rarely (better yet: not at all). It’s best to let the reader determine where the emphasis belongs and a well written sentence shouldn’t need to show the reader where the emphasis goes. Having said all that, plenty of writers have taken creative liberty with punctuation marks. But consider this:

      “You don’t have to go,” she said.
      “You don’t have to go,” she said.

      As you can see, the italics tell the reader where to place emphasis but does so unnecessarily. Good luck :)

  16. Nicole Lilienthal says:

    Hi Melissa,
    I am a speech-language pathologist and I have a question regarding a problem I face in report writing for my profession.
    Here is an example from a report:
    The client was engaged in converstation and independently answered the following questions: “how are you?”; “how old are you?”; “where do you live?”; and “are you married?”.

    Can you please tell me if my punctuation and capitalization are correct?
    Thanks for your help!
    Nicole

    • Hi Nicole,

      This comments section isn’t really a place to get professional advice on commercial writing. As a quick answer, however, I would format the questions into a bulleted list and eliminate the quotation marks. Also, the first letter in each sentence (a question is a sentence) should be capitalized. Good luck!

  17. Joseph McCaffrey says:

    When a character is relating a conversation to another, and he quotes a third character’s short sentences mixed with and his own short responses, can all the short sentence quotes go into one paragraph or must each change of speaker have its own paragraph. For example:

    Wolf said, “I told him, ‘You can’t go in there.’ He told me, ‘I don’t care, I’m going in.’ I warned him,” Wolf said, “‘This gun is loaded, and I know how to use it.’ He said defiantly, ‘you’ll have to use it to keep me out.'”

    • My suggestion would be to rewrite this so that you don’t need so many quotation marks. I would also use the other character’s name. This is pretty confusing the way it’s written. For starters, if Wolf is relating a conversation, he can summarize it instead of quoting dialogue. Here’s an example:

      Wolf said, “I told him not to go in there, but he didn’t care. I warned him, showed him my gun…”

      Another option would be to write the scene as it’s happening instead of having Wolf relate it:

      “You can’t go in there,” Wolf said.

      “I don’t care. I’m going in,” said Joe.

      Hope that helps.

  18. Rachel says:

    Hi Melissa,
    This is a very helpful article and I appreciate all of the advice you have given to the commenters. I have a question I am hoping you can help with. I am writing my first novel and it is first person. My character, Madelyn, is reading a letter that she received from her friend, Ellie. So I am wondering; would the dialogue in the letter be placed into quotation marks like spoken dialogue? Or is distinguishing the written dialogue from the spoken dialogue more a matter of formatting (i.e. indenting the written dialogue)? Or maybe I’m missing some other option I should use to punctuate this part?

    Any advice you might have would be very much appreciated!

    • I have seen this in novels before. Sometimes, written communications are set off by italics. Another good way to distinguish a lengthy passage of written communication is to use a full-paragraph indent, so the entire paragraph is indented by about half an inch with extra spacing above and below. Good luck with your novel!

  19. Bibi says:

    Hi everyone!

    I’ve not read all the comments here but I’m English and would like to point out why we use a ful stop (period) after a quotation mark. A full stop (period) indicates the end of a sentence so it must be placed outside the quotation mark, otherwise it is suggesting the end of the sentence comes BEFORE the final quotation mark. The only way a full stop (period) can be used before the quotation mark is when the entire sentence is in quotes, which rarely happens The American way cannot possibly make sense imho.

    Having said that, I found the entire article very interesting. Thanks.

    • I can see the logic there, but it raises the question of when the sentence actually ends. I would say the sentence is the character’s dialogue and the sentence ends as soon as the character stops speaking, and then the character closes his/her mouth (at which point the quotation marks appear).

      When the period is outside the quotation marks, it looks sloppy to me, like it’s floating around out there by itself, not attached to a sentence.

      I think it’s just because we’re used to whatever standards are common in our respective countries.

  20. Ron says:

    When the emphasized word occurs within a clause and is followed by a comma, I presume the comma is still always inside the quotes? “Just fly down the shore of Lake Michigan to the “Temple,” turn west, and there it is!”

    This would be true regardless of the word emphasized?

    • In the example sentence, there is no reason to emphasize the word temple (also, it should not be capitalized unless it’s the proper name of a particular temple). In any case, we do not use quotation marks for emphasis — they are reserved solely for quotes, dialogue, and (sometimes) chapter or article titles. If we do need to emphasize a word, we would use italics or bold. Occasionally, we might use ALL-CAPS (but this usually indicates yelling). However, we never emphasize a word in order to tell the reader where the emphasis should be in the sentence.

      “Just fly down the shore of Lake Michigan to the temple, turn west, and there it is!”