8 Rules About Punctuation and Quotation Marks

By Mark Nichol

The use of full or partial quotation marks or of paraphrases calls for attention to detail and adherence to a few punctuation rules. Notice that the examples below are deliberately incorrect.

1. “Most agree the word means something like: ‘This stream meanders through something red.’”
The words in the quotation collectively serve the grammatical function of a noun and are not set off from the attribution by a comma or a colon.

2. “The motto, ‘Might makes right’ applies here.”
In this similar case, “the motto” is an appositive for “Might makes right,” just as in “the Web site DailyWritingTips.com,” “the Web site” is an appositive of the site’s name: “The motto ‘Might makes right’ applies here.” To insert a comma implies that this is the only existing motto (though there should then be one after right as well to complete the restrictive phrase).

3. “According to the book, at the first sign of an outbreak, ‘Children were whisked home from summer camps in the middle of the night.’”
If an incomplete quotation is completed by a preceding paraphrase, lowercase the first word of the partial quotation unless it is a proper noun. In this case, “at the first sign of an outbreak” substitutes for the missing introductory phrase: “According to the book, at the first sign of an outbreak, ‘children were whisked home from summer camps in the middle of the night.’” In scholarly writing, the first letter of children should be bracketed to clarify that it was capitalized in the original source, but that nicety is unnecessary in general.

4. “He concluded that what America needs most is a “guiding belief” for citizens, industry, and government.”
This sentence is essentially correct, but when a partial quote consists of such a brief phrase, ask yourself whether the quotation marks are justified; why not just paraphrase the entire sentence?: “He concluded that what America needs most is a guiding belief for citizens, industry, and government.”

5. “Her response was that she had ‘definitely locked the door on my way out.’”
A writer might deem it crucial to retain a partial quote, but if the speaker uses the first person, the quotation won’t fit the reportorial third-person framing, and a paraphrase is necessary: “Her response was that she had definitely locked the door on her way out.” (Alternatively, you could paraphrase part of the direct quote — “Her response was that she had ‘definitely locked the door’ on her way out” — but, again, with diminishing returns.)

6. “The question is which selection is better?”
This is a conjectural question not literally stated, so it is only tangentially related to the other examples here, but it’s important to point out that such constructions should include a comma: “The question is, which turnoff did she take?” (However, when the sentence is not stated as a question, the comma should be omitted: “The question is which selection is better.”)

7. When asked to clarify his earlier statement, he said: ‘I have nothing to add.’”
Writers frequently introduce a statement with a colon rather than a comma, but this construction is awkward, because a colon invites the reader to put on the brakes, rather than just slow down, a fleeting action the more flexible comma invites: “When asked to clarify his earlier statement, he said, ‘I have nothing to add.’” (See also the second example, above.)

Do retain the colon, however, when the attribution is an independent clause, as here: “He made this shocking public statement: ‘I think there is a fair chance Perth will be the twenty-first century’s first ghost metropolis.’”

8. “‘This [the subway bombing] is a minor thing that will develop into something major,’ she added.”
When scholarly standards or journalistic integrity demands an exact quotation, but a full statement isn’t available, here’s the conventional but clunky solution: Provide the rest of what the speaker or writer meant to say — or the definite noun they didn’t provide in order to fortify your class or reporting assignment — within brackets. But note that the bracketed insertion should replace, not supplement, the indefinite subject: “‘[The subway bombing] is a minor thing that will develop into something major,’ she added.”

Alternatively, especially in less-than-formal contexts (or even in newspaper reporting — I won’t tell), feel free — when you are certain of the intended specifics — to employ a handy technique called silent correction. In other words, bail on the brackets: “The subway bombing is a minor thing that will develop into something major,” she added.”

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16 Responses to “8 Rules About Punctuation and Quotation Marks”

  • Cecily

    A caveat for British readers (and maybe other English-speaking countries outside the US): for us, punctuation only goes inside the quotation marks if it is part of the quotation. For example, in number 8, the comma would go after the closing quotation mark in BrE.

  • Carol

    In the first one, shouldn’t “This” be proceeded by a single quotation mark since it is closed by one?

  • Carol

    Make that preceeded.

  • Mark Nichol

    Carol:

    Perhaps it looks like a double quotation mark on your screen, but it is in fact a double.

  • Mark Nichol

    After this post was uploaded, I noticed a couple of issues:

    1. I didn’t provide a correct example: “Most agree the word means something like ‘This stream meanders through something red.’”

    6. While writing this item, I replaced the sample incorrect sentence but forgot to change the wording in the correct example, which should be “The question is, which selection is better?”

  • Mark Nichol

    Carol:

    I meant, it is in fact a single.

  • Kathryn

    “it is in fact a single.”
    Y’know, I find that rather alarming–what is the point of attempting to be correct, if the medium is going to make you incorrect, willy-nilly? It looks like a double quotation mark on my screen, as well. . .is this a browser issue? (Firefox 3.6.13 here). And–it would be interesting to see a DWT post on what to do if the browser sabotages you, although I suppose the response in all-too-many cases would be “drop back and punt!”

  • Michael

    Looks like a single to me on Firefox 3.6.13 and Safari 5.0.3.

  • Peter

    I’m pretty sure it was a double the first time I read this post, but it’s a single now…I suspect intervention 🙂

  • Daniel Scocco

    Yes initially the post had a double quotation mark, but it was a typo and I fixed it.

  • Joan

    Great tips! I own an online PR and writing services company and it’s amazing how many professional writers will incorrectly punctuate when they write. I still can’t believe that some one can graduate from high school and put still put punctuation outside of quotation marks.

  • Precise Edit

    And let’s not forget the extra space between a single and double quotation mark when they are together.

    “She said the meal was ‘as tasty as last week’s roadkill.’ ”

    (/fingers crossed that extra space shows up when I hit submit)

  • Mark Nichol

    Precise:

    Practice varies. I’ve not seen an entire letter space, but some publications employ a special thin space. Many, however, don’t bother.

  • Roger

    These are very useful tips. Thanks.

  • Dolores

    I do not know whether to use quotation marks in this sentence. Which is correct.
    Marked wondered to himself, “Hope the sun finally comes out.”
    OR
    Marked wondered to himself, hope the sun finally comes out.

    “I hope the fun finally comes out”, Mark thought to himself.
    OR
    I hope the sun finally comes out, Mark thought to himself

  • Mark Nichol

    Dolores:

    I covered this issue in this post.

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