By and large, English is English regardless of which English-speaking country a person is from. There are, of course, various words that take on different meanings in different locations, but English grammar remains fairly constant. Quotation marks, however, are a different animal. There is more variation with use and placement of quotation marks than perhaps with any other English language guideline.
In this article, I’ll primarily deal with the American usage and placement, with an occasional note contrasting the difference with what is commonly referred to as the British style. For writers interested primarily in the latter, I refer you to The Oxford Guide to Style.
As you might expect, quotation marks are most commonly used with quoted material. In fiction this means in dialogue.
[Editor’s note: My apologies for the backwards closing quotes in the upcoming sections. Apparently if I use the code to create a red font, the quotation marks curl in the wrong direction. I decided more was gained by using the change of color than was lost by the backwards curl.]
Example: “Should I pack your blue shirt as well as the white one?“ she asked.
Note, there is a difference between dialogue and “indirect discourse” in which no quotation marks are required. In dialogue, the exact words of the speaker are quoted and therefore placed inside quotation marks. In indirect discourse, the speaker’s words are given in summary, rather than in the precise language he used, and therefore are not placed inside quotation marks.
Example 1 (a line of dialogue): “I’ve seen enough,“ he said.
Example 2 (indirect discourse): He said he’s seen enough.
In nonfiction using quotation marks with quoted material means quoting another source in support of a point or to offer contrast to a particular view.
- Example: The author advanced his argument by saying, “Act 3 begins in the next logical point on that journey.“
The placement of the closing quotation mark is always after a comma or a period. Placement in regard to other punctuation marks varies based on whether the mark belongs to the sentence at large or to the quoted material. (Placement when using British English varies from these guidelines.)
Example 1 (period always inside the closing quotation mark): She gave him an odd smile and said, “I wouldn’t eat that if I were you.“
Example 2 (comma always inside the closing quotation mark): “If you finish early, you may go,“ the teacher said with a wink.
Example 3 (the question mark belongs to the quoted material): Her new mantra is “Must you always go?“
Example 4 (the exclamation point belongs to the entire sentence): How shameful if he had to say, “I can’t finish“!
Quotation marks may also be used in “unspoken discourse,” commonly called interior monologue in fiction. Such discourse would also include silent prayer or telepathic conversation. When conveying any of these unspoken thoughts, the author may choose to use quotation marks or not. Note, however, that placing these in italicized type is not a standard practice according to the Chicago Manual of Style. (For more information on italicized type, see “Italics And When Not To Use Them.”)
Another common use of quotation marks is with titles of non-freestanding works such as articles in newspapers, magazines, or on blogs; individual sections of books; short stories; poems; and the individual title of an episode of a TV show.
The placement of the closing quotation mark follows the same guidelines as with other uses.
Occasionally quotation marks are required within a quotation. In that case single quotation marks, ‘like this,‘ are used. (Note: British style reverses the order, using a single mark predominantly and employing the double mark when needed inside a quotation.)
Example: “Did Mr. McGuyre tell us to read ‘Fog‘ by Carl Sandburg or ‘The Road Not Taken‘ by Robert Frost?“ David whispered to the girl sitting next to him in the library.
Lastly, novelists may wonder about using quotation marks with epigrams, generally quotes from someone real or fictitious, placed before a chapter or section of the book. In this specialized use of a quote, quotation marks are not used.
Feel free to ask questions in the comments section if I didn’t cover something you’d like to know. Happy quoting. 😀