I’m going to tell you a secret. I got marks taken off the first short story I ever wrote in high school because I did not know how to punctuate dialogue properly. Specifically, I did not know the punctuation went inside the quotation marks. I also didn’t know that you used a comma to separate a dialogue tag from the dialogue.
Quotation marks are used to designate speech acts in fiction and sometimes poetry. They’re also used to set off material that represents quoted or spoken language. Quotation marks also set off the titles of things that do not normally stand by themselves: short stories, poems, and articles.
Here’s a baker’s dozen of things to keep in mind when working with quotation marks and quotations:
1. Quotation marks tend to travel in pairs. The exception to this is when dialogue carries from one paragraph to another. There is a beginning quotation mark at the start of each new paragraph, but the closing quotation mark does not appear until the quoted language finally ends.
2. Periods and commas always go inside quotation marks.
"At last," said the bridesmaid, "I can take these shoes off."
3. Semicolons and colons always go outside the quotation marks.
I love “Lord of the Rings”; in fact, it’s one of my all-time favourite books.
Bob was succinct in his review of “Casablanca”: he stated it was the all time greatest film.
4. Question marks, exclamation marks, and dashes go inside quotation marks when they are part of the quotation, and outside when they do not.
“Will I need a coat?” she asked.
Can I borrow Season 3 of “Trueblood”?
5. When you have a question that is both outside quoted material and inside quoted material, use only one question mark and place it inside the quotation mark.
Did she say, “Can I come too?”
6. When reporting silent speech, when something is said but not spoken out loud, the use of quotation marks is up to the author’s discretion.
This is the perfect place to build my house, he said to himself.
“This is the perfect place to build my house,” he said to himself.
Some writers will set unspoken language in italics or indent it to set it apart from the regular language.
7. Use single quotation marks for quotes within quotes. Note that the period goes inside all quote marks.
He continued, “Then Sheila said, ‘Over my dead body!’”
8. Capitalize the first letter of a direct quote when the quoted material is a complete sentence.
Clarice, who was one of the first on the scene, said, "The smoke was so thick I could barely make out the house."
9. Do not use a capital letter when the quoted material is a fragment or only a piece of the original material's complete sentence.
Although Clarice is a seasoned reporter, she said the smoke “was so thick I could barely make out the house” when she arrived on the scene.
10. If a direct quotation is interrupted mid-sentence, do not capitalize the second part of the quotation.
“I didn’t see who started it,” Clarice said, “but whoever it was must have been trapped inside.”
11. Do not use quotation marks with quoted material that is more than three lines in length.
12. When you are quoting something that has a spelling or grammar mistake or presents material in a confusing way, you need to transcribe the text exactly as it appears and then insert the term sic in italics and within brackets. The word tells the reader that your quote is an exact reproduction of what you found, and the error is not your own.
In her letter she wrote, “I can’t believe you’d rather be with her then [sic] me.”
13. Do not use quotation marks to emphasize a word. Underline or italicize that word instead. Quotation marks used around words to give special effect or to indicate irony are usually unnecessary. When irony or special effect is intended, skillful preparation can take the place of using these quotes. The quotation marks will suggest to some people that you really mean something else.
And now that you know everything there is to know about using quotation marks properly, test your knowledge with a Quiz!