5 Sentences Demonstrating Whether to Capitalize and Punctuate Quotations

By Mark Nichol

When the syntax of a sentence containing a quotation is not straightforward, it can be difficult to determine whether the first word should be capitalized and which punctuation marks, if any, should attend the quotation. The following sentences illustrate some of the pitfalls, and discussions and revisions point to their solutions.

1. After years of finger-pointing, Smith says “enough is enough” and is filing suit against Jones.

The statement may seem insignificant, but it is a complete sentence and should be treated as one; it should also be preceded by a comma following the attribution (“Smith says”): “After years of finger-pointing, Smith says, “Enough is enough” and is filing suit against Jones. (Note, too, that no punctuation follows the quotation, because what follows is not an independent clause; it would be one if it included a noun or pronoun after and: “After years of finger-pointing, Smith says, “Enough is enough,” and he is filing suit against Jones.”)

2. Clients have begun to ask the question, who will own the process once the change has occurred?

The question is something uttered or conjecturally uttered, so it should be enclosed in quotation marks. However, it is not set up with a traditional attribution. No preceding punctuation is needed: “Clients have begun to ask the question ‘Who will own the process once the change has occurred?’” (A comma after question implies that only one question exists, and it follows.)

3. The question is not “can it happen?” but “what is the impact if it does happen, and how will we respond?”

Here, the issues in both of the preceding examples are combined in one sentence. There is no attribution to set off with a comma, but each of the two quotations is a complete sentence quoted within the host sentence and must therefore be capitalized: “The question is not ‘Can it happen?’ but ‘What is the impact if it does happen, and how will we respond?’”

4. He mocked Trump’s slogan, suggesting it was really: “Make America Hate Again.”

A colon sets up an explanation or elaboration. Here, however, what follows really flows syntactically in the sentence, so no intervening punctuation is called for: “He mocked Trump’s slogan, suggesting it was really ‘Make America Hate Again.’”

5. They ignored the kids’ stubborn insistence that, “We don’t just look different, we are different.”

Here, although the quotation in this sentence was originally uttered as a complete statement, it has been syntactically integrated into the host sentence and is therefore not capitalized: “They ignored the kids’ stubborn insistence that ‘we don’t just look different, we are different.’”

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3 Responses to “5 Sentences Demonstrating Whether to Capitalize and Punctuate Quotations”

  • Carl

    The five sentences are a perfect illustration on how and when to capitalize and use punctuation quotations in writing. Surely, different approaches, based on sentence structure, could be adopted when dealing with quotations.

    Although it might be debatable, your illustrations on “capitalization” are equally excellent. Good work!

    Thanks a lot.

  • Thebluebird11

    Mark, I’m sure you’re right and I bow to your superiority, but I am just not understanding your re-punctuation in example #1 above. I don’t see (a) why you need a comma after “says,” and (b) why you don’t need a comma after “enough.”
    I know that normally there is a comma after things like “says,” but in this case it seems a bit unnecessary and also seems to murk things up, because it sounds as if Smith is saying “After years of finger-pointing.” It should be clear that he is saying “Enough is enough.” The construction is a little odd too, being in the present tense.

    It also seems to me that in the second part, the word “he” is understood. In other words, if I were faced with punctuating this sentence, I would have put: After years of finger-pointing, Smith says “Enough is enough,” and is filing suit against Jones.

    Again, I would have put “Smith said” (rather than says), but…anyway if this had been on a test, and your re-punctuation is the only correct way, I would have gotten this one wrong.

    The first 3 examples are kind of annoying to me, and I would imagine that if I had been faced with having to write them, I would have rephrased them. The last 2 examples are normal-sounding to me, and your fixes make sense. In general it seems to me that unless there is a real need for a direct quote, it is better to paraphrase/attribute or syntactically integrate the information into the sentence.

  • Chaminda

    Thanks a bunch for explaining all this.

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