The Grammar Bitch and the Quotation Quandary

I get asked a lot of questions regarding quotation marks: when do you use them, where does the punctuation go, and when do you use single or double quotation marks? Obviously, quotation marks, like commas, are punctuation marks that people aren’t quite sure how to handle, so I often find that writers come up with interesting and creative ways to avoid using them entirely. This isn’t necessarily the best solution, though, so let’s jump in and sort this out.

Just a note before we get started. Some usage of quotation marks varies depending on the style guide that you follow, or whether you’re using American English or British/Canadian/Australian English as your standard. For our purposes, I’ll be talking about American English, following The AP Stylebook and The Chicago Manual of Style. My general rule is: when all else fails, do what the AP tells me to do. Except when it comes to Oxford commas.

Quotation Quandary #1: Where do I put the punctuation?

In general, most punctuation is placed inside the quotation marks. Obviously, you include whatever punctuation is part of the original quotation, but also include any end punctuation for your sentence, even if it’s not part of the quoted material. Huh?

  • She looked at me and said, “I find quotation marks completely incomprehensible.”
  • I said, “You do?”
  • She replied, “They confuse and confound me. I never know what to do!”
  • Then I hummed a few lines from one of my favorite songs, “Raspberry Beret.” I’m not quite sure why.

So, the first three of those examples probably make perfect sense. The punctuation is part of what you’re quoting, so inside the quotation marks it goes. It gets complicated in the last example, because “Raspberry Beret,” unlike many of Prince’s greater works, contains no punctuation in the title. In that example, as well as in the sentence right before this one, the punctuation (a period in the example, and a comma in the previous sentence) is contained within the quotation marks.

Quotation Quandary #2: What about question marks (and colons and exclamation points)?

Glad you asked. If the question mark is part of the quoted material, put in inside the quotation marks. If not, it goes outside. For example:

  • He asked, “Are you free for dinner on Saturday?” (The question mark is part of the quoted material.)
  • Did I really just hear him say, “I’m so dope like soap on a rope”? (The question mark is not part of the quoted material.)

When using quotation marks before a colon, the colon usually goes outside of the quotation marks, unless it’s part of the quoted material. For example:

  • Today, I’m going to discuss several accusations thrown at the so-called “liberal media”:
  1. Accusation 1
  2. Accusation 2

Quotation Quandary #3: What the heck is a block quote?

A block quote is a way to indicate that you’re quoting a longer chunk of text. Style manuals vary on how long a quote should be in order to use a block quote, but four lines of full text is a fairly common suggestion. Block quotes are always introduced with a colon, they are not surrounded by quotation marks, but instead are indented from the main text, and if any quotation marks are used within the block quote, you use regular double quotation marks. It’s easier if you see it:

This is a rather large chunk of text. I’m writing about very important things, I assure you. You may ask yourself, “Well, how did I get here?” You may tell yourself, “This is not my beautiful house.” I like quoting Talking Heads lyrics when I’m trying to fill up lines of text. That’s just something we all have to live with. Sometimes I switch it up and quote the Pixies instead, but then I get “Wave of Mutilation” stuck in my head and it just won’t go away.

My stream-of-consciousness rambling aside, you can see how a block quote should look.

Quotation Quandary #4: How do I handle quotation marks inside of quotation marks?

When dealing with standard quotations (not block quotes) that contain other quotation marks, the “outside” set of quotation marks are the standard doubles, and the “inside” quotation marks are singles. For example:

  • “And then I overheard her say, ‘Can you believe that jerk?'”

In this example, the whole quotation is wrapped in double quotation marks (“), and the quote-within-a-quote is wrapped in singles (‘), which leads to there being three quotation marks at the end of the sentence, since it’s both the end of the quote and the quote-within-a-quote.

Are you confused yet? Did this clear up any uncertainties you had regarding quotation marks? If there’s anything you still aren’t clear on, please feel free to ask in the comments.



13 replies on “The Grammar Bitch and the Quotation Quandary”

A sort of related crazy aside that I believe Grammar Bitches of all sorts would appreciate.

My brother is in a high school honors history class. He is banned from using semicolons in all work that is to be turned in. I was proofreading an essay for him, when I found many instances that semicolons could have been appropriate. The teacher’s rationale is that his students tend to not know how to use semicolons, so rather than educating them (teethgrind), he restricts his students from using them all together.

Would you do such a post for semicolons (or does such a post exist?)

Gratitude in advance!

I want to be a Grammar Bitch when I grow up! I mean, technically, I am one. I’m a copy editor by trade. But I always wanted to start a feminist magazine for young women, and then magazines died, and I started reading blogs instead.

So, if I can ask, how did you get this job? You are living my dream!

Oh, jeez, I got this job by submitting a piece, and then being a pedantic jerk. Fortunately for me, our awesome editor-in-chief offered me the job instead of telling me to go screw. My “real life” job has nothing to do with words, grammar, or punctuation, so Persephone lets me release my inner copyeditrix.

Are you looking for work? We pay in internet hugs and gratitude, but there’s always room for more bookish, clever, grammar bitches on our masthead. POM is the best copyeditor I know, we’d fall apart without her, but we’re always willing to share the workload.

I do have a soft spot for pedantic jerks, but it’s not a job requirement. ; )

I might have to bookmark this. The only time I am comfortable with punctuation and quotation marks is in the case of something like “I’m going to the store,” I said. Anything other than that confuses me. Like “Do you want me to go to the store?” I asked. A question mark and a period in the same sentence?? I don’t understand!

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