Writing for Business and Pleasure
Copyright by Stephen Wilbers
www.wilbers.com

When to use and not to use quotation marks

Related column: "Quotation marks make reading easy, writing hard"

Use quotation marks to:

1. Mark direct quotations, as in He said, “Try your best.” (Note that the first word of the quote begins with a capital letter.)

2. Mark titles of shorter works, such as articles, poems, and chapters. (Use italics or underlining for titles of longer works, such as books, plays, and films.)

3. Call attention to a word, phrase, or concept that is unfamiliar to the reader or that is used in a nonstandard way, as in Based on empathy rather than confrontation, “Rogerian persuasion” offers an alternative to classical argumentation.

4. Call attention to a nontechnical term used in a technical sense, as in Deconstructionism explores the meaning of the “signs” of language.

Do NOT use quotation marks to:

5. Mark indirect quotations or paraphrases, as in Our boss said that we should persevere. (But Our boss said, “Never say die!”)

Note that no comma is used to mark a paraphrase after the word that.

6. Mark a cliché, proverbial saying, or other overused expression, as in “Quality control” is our strength, or We need to do “our very best.”

Sometimes called “winking,” this last example reflects a tendency for writers to disown or apologize for worn-out language. Although the quotation marks are intended to convey “I know this is lazy wording I could have done better, but I didn’t have time,” in reality they tell the reader “If you were more important, I would have taken time to find more appropriate wording but you aren’t, and I didn’t.”

If you are going to use a familiar word or expression, do so without apology.

7. Emphasize a particular word or phrase. Instead, use italics, as in “I am absolutely certain.”

8. Mark yes and no when used alone, as in She said yes.

9. Mark a word or phrase after the expression so-called, as in She is the so-called leader of the group (not She is the so-called “leader” of the group).

Miscellaneous rules and conventions:

10. Use single quotation marks only for quotes within quotes and for headlines in newspapers and publications.

Avoid the common error of placing single quotation marks around words or phrases and reserving double quotation marks for use around complete sentences.

11. Place commas and periods inside quotation marks.

For a discussion of the “American style” (in which commas and periods are placed within quotation marks) versus “the exacting British system” (in which commas and periods are placed either inside or outside quotation marks depending on whether they are part of the quotation), see The Chicago Manual of Style (14th ed.), pages 160-61. Or see “FAQ Concerning Punctuation” on my Web page.

12. Place semicolons, colons, and question marks outside quotation marks, unless they are part of the quotation.

Here, American usage follows the logic of the British system, perhaps because these punctuation marks are considered more obtrusive than commas and periods.

13. If the quotation ends with a question mark or exclamation point, omit the first comma, as in “Do you want me to do this first?” Sally asked; not “Do you want me to do this first?,” Sally asked. And not “Do you want me to do this first?”, Sally asked.

14. For a quotation longer than one paragraph that is not set off from the text in a block, use quotation marks at the beginning of each paragraph and at the end of the final paragraph.

For example, in a three-paragraph quotation do not use quotation marks at the end of the first and second paragraphs. Leave those paragraphs “open” to indicate that the quotation continues.

15. If a one-sentence quotation is interrupted by a phrase of attribution or signal phrase, use quotation marks around both parts of the quotation, a comma after the first part of the quotation, and a comma after the phrase of attribution, as in “I’ll finish this project,” Sally said to her boss, “as soon as I get the figures from accounting.”

16. If a two-sentence quotation is interrupted between the sentences by a phrase of attribution, use quotation marks around both sentences, a comma after the first sentence of the quotation, and a period after the phrase of attribution, as in “I will finish this report on time,” Sally assured her boss. “It will be on your desk by 2 p.m.” (Note that the first word of the second quoted sentence begins with a capital letter.)

17. Set off long quotations as blocked or indented text. Long quotations generally are defined as having more than 4 lines. (Some style manuals define long quotations as having more than 40 words; The Chicago Manual of Style defines long quotations as having more than 10 lines.) The sentence introducing a long quotation ordinarily ends with a colon (rather than a comma).

Present block quotations without quotation marks. (Use quotation marks as you normally would for quotations within the block quotation.)

Style manuals differ on whether block quotations within a double-spaced document should be single-spaced or double-spaced, and whether they should be indented from the left side margin only or from both side margins. The Chicago Manual of Style and other academic style manuals call for double-spacing and indenting from the left side margin only; The Gregg Reference Manual, a standard guide for business writing, calls for single-spacing and indenting from both side margins.  To on-the-job writers, I recommend single-spacing and indenting from the left side only.


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Writing for Business and Pleasure
Copyright by Stephen Wilbers
www.wilbers.com

First published by the Minneapolis Star Tribune: November 7, 1997

Quotation marks make reading easy, writing hard

by Stephen Wilbers

Quotation marks were invented to make life easier. Those neat little squiggly marks provide an unobtrusive way to indicate a change in voice. They help readers keep track of who’s doing the talking.

What would we do without them?

Like many contrivances invented to make things more convenient for some, however, quotation marks make life more complicated for others – namely writers.

The rules themselves are fairly straightforward: Use quotation marks to enclose direct quotations (as in He said, “Try your best”), to enclose titles of shorter works (such as articles, poems, and chapters – but use italics or underlining for titles of longer works, such as books, plays, and films), to call attention to a word, phrase, or concept that is unfamiliar to the reader or that is used in a nonstandard way (as in Based on empathy rather than confrontation, “Rogerian persuasion” offers an alternative to Classical argumentation), and to call attention to a nontechnical term used in a technical sense (as in Deconstructionism explores the meaning of the “signs” of language).

On the other hand, do not use quotation marks to enclose indirect quotations or paraphrases (as in Our boss urged us to persevere – but Our boss said, “Never say die!”), to enclose yes and no when used alone (She said yes), to enclose a word or phrase after the expression so-called (She is the so-called leader of the group – not She is the so-called “leader” of the group), to give emphasis to a particular word or phrase (instead, use italics, as in “I am absolutely certain”), and to enclose a cliché, proverbial saying, or other overused expression (as in “Quality control” is our strength, or We need to do “our very best”).

Sometimes called “winking,” this last example reflects a natural tendency for writers to disown or apologize for worn-out language. Although the quotation marks are intended to convey “I know this is lazy wording – I could have done better, but I didn’t have time,” in reality they tell the reader “If you were more important, I would have taken time to find more appropriate wording – but you aren’t, and I didn’t.”

If you are going to use a familiar word or expression, have the courage to do so without apology.

Despite their straightforward appearance, however, the rules for using quotations become complicated in practice. Here are four guidelines to help keep you out of trouble:

Use single quotation marks only for quotes within quotes and for headlines in newspapers and publications. Avoid the common error of placing single quotation marks around words or phrases and reserving double quotation marks for use around complete sentences.

Place commas and periods inside quotation marks. For a discussion of the “American style” (in which commas and periods are placed within quotation marks) versus “the exacting British system” (in which commas and periods are placed either inside or outside quotation marks depending on whether they are part of the quotation), see The Chicago Manual of Style (14th ed.), pages 160-61, or see Punctuation: FAQ.

Place semicolons, colons, and question marks outside quotation marks, unless they are part of the quotation. Here, American usage follows the logic of the British system, perhaps because these punctuation marks are considered more obtrusive than commas and periods.

For a quotation longer than one paragraph, use quotation marks at the beginning of each paragraph and at the end of the final paragraph. In a three-paragraph quotation, for example, do not use quotation marks at the end of the first and second paragraphs. Leave those paragraphs “open” to indicate the quotation continues.

Despite occasional inconsistencies, there is logic behind most of the “rules.” You just have to look hard to find it.


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