Tag Archives: quotation marks

Quotation Marks And Where They Belong

Trunk or BootBy 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. 😀



Filed under Quotation Marks

Em Dashes Can Keep Company

I’ve looked at the basics of the em dash, commonly referred to as the dash, in “Punctuation Pitfalls–The Em Dash and Its Cousin the En Dash” and “The Ellipsis or the Em-Dash.” But I realized there’s another aspect of this handy-dandy punctuation mark that I have yet to address: how does it work with accompanying marks? Or does it?

As in so much of English grammar, the answer to the last question is, it depends. There are times the em dash should not and will never be joined with another punctuation mark, but then there are the times, it must include a companion. So which is which?

The never instances are places where the em dash replaces a comma: in complex sentences. As a refresher, a complex sentence has two clauses, or groups of words containing a subject and verb: one independent, able to stand on its own as a sentence, and one dependent, not expressing a complete thought. To review where the comma belongs in a complex sentence, see “Punctuation Pitfalls – The Comma, Part 5.”

In these complex sentences, a writer may chooses to substitute an em dash for the comma, in which case, the em dash is flying solo.

Then there are instances when it takes on passengers. Here are three:

  1. If the parenthetical information set off by em dashes is either a question or an exclamation, a question mark or an exclamation point may precede the em dash.
    Most of the politicianswho says they care?–seem to ignore the wishes of voters.
  2. If an em dash is used to indicate a sudden break in dialogue, it precedes the closing quotation mark. If the sentence continues, requiring a comma, the em dash precedes the comma.
    “Get out of my way! Get out of my–“
    “I’ve had enough of your–,” she began, but her daughter burst into tears.
  3. If the sudden break belongs to the action rather than to the dialogue, em dashes are used after and before the quotation marks to separate the dialogue from the rest of the sentence.
    “Someday you’ll be sorry,” — he poked his finger into my chest — “and don’t you forget it.”

There you have it–our em dash friend isn’t always a loner. Depending on the circumstance, he can consort with punctuation partners.


Filed under Commas, Dashes, Sentence structure

Period. End Of Subject.

Of all the punctuation marks, periods are perhaps the most basic. Chances are we learned about periods back in primary school when we first began to string words together on paper to form sentences.

Not much has changed with the period since then, but there are a few tidbits that bear review and a few uses that occur only on occasion, so they might need clarification.

First, the basic function of the period is to end a statement or a command. However, in less formal writing and in fiction, incomplete sentences have become an accepted part of writing. These too end with a period. One popular (and annoying) (over)use along these lines is a string of single word “sentences,” each followed with a period.

    Example: Heat flushed her face. “I. Did. Not. Say. You. Could. Leave.

The forced stop which the period creates is actually an effective way to create clipped speech. However, like so many new creations, many rush to imitate and the sheer volume renders what had been fresh and innovative, tired and cliched.

I suggest writers moderate their use of this unique construction. Save it for the right moment when no other way can capture the irritation your character feels.

Questions sometimes arise concerning placement of periods. When used with quotation marks, Chicago Manual Of Style places them inside a closing quotation mark. Always. (OK, I just couldn’t resist — sorry. 😉 But while I was teasing with the single word construction, I am serious about the fact that the period always belongs inside the closing quotation mark.)

A similar question arises regarding periods and parentheses. The placement here is not as rigid. When a parenthetical expression enclosed in parentheses ends a sentence, the period belongs outside the closing parenthesis. If the parenthetical material is an entire sentence, however, and appears after another completed sentence, the period belongs with the parenthetical sentence and therefore goes inside the final parenthesis.


    * My brother is a lawyer (and he’s the best). [The parenthetical material appears as part of the existing sentence, so the period belongs to the sentence and goes at the end.]

    * He practices law in Los Angeles. (Eventually he hopes to join the district attorney’s office.) [The parenthetical material is a separate sentence, so the period belongs to the material inside the parentheses and is also placed there.]

The next most common use of the period is in abbreviations. Again using Chicago Manual Of Style, the rule is to omit the period for abbreviations all in capitals but to use a period after lower case abbreviations. By the way, should an abbreviation requiring a period end a sentence, you do not then add another period. The one does double duty.

    * vs.
    * a.m.
    * esp.
    * CEO
    * AARP
    * ACLU
    * NASA

When given names are abbreviated, a period always follows the capitalized letter.

    * C. S. Lewis
    * J. K. Rowling
    * J. R. R. Tolkien
    * G. K. Chersterton

As you might guess, there are numerous exceptions for specialty situations, so if in doubt, check a style manual or ask your nearest editor. 😀


Filed under Periods