The placement of quotation marks perplexes a lot of 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? Are they used for both spoken dialogue and thought dialogue? What about text messages or notes in a novel — should they be placed in quotes or italics?
Today we’re going to look at quotation marks with a focus on how they should be used within the realm of fiction writing.
Quotation Marks and Dialogue
She said, “I’m writing a book.”
“I’m working on it,” she whispered, “but it’s going to take a while.”
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 closing punctuation marks, which are usually commas or periods but can also be exclamation points or question marks.
A dialogue tag (he said, she said) should end with a comma when it precedes the dialogue:
She said, “My book is almost done.”
The dialogue itself should follow the rules of grammar, with the first letter of sentences capitalized, and the appropriate terminal punctuation marks (period, question mark, etc.) in place — the only exception is when a dialogue tag is placed after the dialogue, in which case the dialogue should end with a comma instead of a terminal punctuation mark, such as a period:
“My book is almost done,” she said.
However, when the dialogue tag comes after the dialogue and the dialogue ends with an exclamation point or a question mark, there should be no terminal comma on the dialogue:
“How long will it take to write a book?” she asked.
And the dialogue tag should always start with a lowercase letter, even if preceded by an exclamation point or question mark, which are terminal punctuations marks:
“I wrote a book!” she declared.
Single Quotation Marks
Dialogue within dialogue should be placed in single quotation marks:
She handed him a pen and said, “Here are some words of wisdom: Ursula K. Le Guin once said, ‘First sentences are doors to worlds.'”
Fictional narratives often include the characters’ thoughts:
“Is my book any good?” she wondered.
There are no grammatical rules for formatting thought dialogue. However, if spoken dialogue and thought dialogue are both placed in quotation marks, it could become confusing or difficult for readers to differentiate between the characters’ thoughts and speech.
That’s why many authors use italics for thought dialogue:
Is my book any good? she wondered.
But often a simple revision will eliminate the need for quotations marks or italics:
She wondered if her book was any good.
What About Text Messages or Notes?
Many authors use italics to indicate text messages within a narrative, including notes that one character writes to another character. If the message or note is more than a few lines, it should be set off in block quotes, and it doesn’t need quotation marks or italics or anything else. However, for a short note or text message, use quotation marks, not italics:
She sent a text message, saying, “I just sent my manuscript to you.”
Titles and Quotation Marks
Most titles should be italicized, including book titles. Quotation marks are used for titles of shorter works (that are part of a larger work). For example, an album title is italicized; a song title is placed in quotation marks. A magazine title is italicized, but the title of an article within the magazine is placed in quotation marks. A book title is italicized, but a chapter title should be in quotation marks.
Quotation Marks vs. Italics
It’s not unusual to see quotation marks and italics used interchangeably or incorrectly. I’ve seen italics used for dialogue and quotes used to refer to words beings referenced as terms within a text. Here’s a quick rundown of correct or common usage:
- Titles of books, magazines, films, television shows, and albums should be italicized.
- Titles of chapters, articles, episodes, and songs should be in quotation marks.
- Quotes, including song lyrics or quoted notes and messages, should be in quotation marks, but if they exceed a few lines, they should be in block quotes.
- When referring to a word as a term, use italics. Example: The word book has multiple meanings.
Ultimately, the purpose of punctuation marks is to make your writing clear and consistent. You’ll find that the rules of grammar often don’t address questions that arise regarding how to properly use quotation marks. That’s why it’s best to use a style guide, which will cover most issues that grammar doesn’t address.