3 Cases of Intrusive Punctuation Before a Quotation

By Mark Nichol

When an introductory or attributive phrase ending in a verb precedes one or more complete sentences enclosed in quotation marks to express something written or said, a comma separates the phrase from the quotation—for example, “The conventional wisdom is, ‘Trust, but verify,’” or “I replied, ‘Go for it.’” But if the quotation is incomplete or is complete but is incorporated into the syntactical flow of the sentence, generally, no punctuation should intervene, as explained in the discussions and shown in the revisions following each example below.

1. The reporter who wrote both articles said that, “the company never asked for a correction.”

When a sentence ends in a partial quotation and is syntactically structured so that the quotation is grammatically integrated into the sentence, no intervening punctuation (and no initial capitalization) is necessary: “The reporter who wrote both articles said that ‘the company never asked for a correction.’” (Alternatively, the sentence can be revised to consist of an attributive phrase followed by a quotation consisting of one or more complete sentences: The reporter who wrote both articles said, “The company never asked for a correction.”)

An exception to the no-punctuation rule is if the punctuation is grammatically required—for example, because of an intervening parenthesis, as in “The reporter who wrote both articles said that, as far as he knows, ‘the company never asked for a correction.’” (In this case, the implied quotation, though the person of course did not literally say “as far as he knows,” starts with that phrase.)

2. The magazine famously dubbed the 2003 flick, “The Citizen Kane of bad movies.”

The phrase preceding the quotation is not attributive, and as in the previous example, the entire sentence constitutes a grammatically complete statement, so the comma is intrusive: “The magazine famously dubbed the 2003 flick “the Citizen Kane of bad movies.” (Again, note that because the quotation is a partial sentence, the first word should not be capitalized.)

3. Such cases leave us shaking our heads and asking the rhetorical question, “What were they thinking?”

This sentence suffers from the same obstructive punctuation, with the additional fault of implying, by setting “rhetorical question” off from the question with a comma, that the sentence is restrictive—that the question is not a rhetorical question but the rhetorical question: “Such cases leave us shaking our heads and asking the rhetorical question ‘What were they thinking?’” (Alternatively, simply omit the extraneous phrase and write, “Such cases leave us shaking our heads and asking, ‘What were they thinking?’”)

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2 Responses to “3 Cases of Intrusive Punctuation Before a Quotation”

  • D.A.W.

    @ The Bluebird:
    Not true: “Please note that (the long-suffering) Mark Nichol is the authority here, to educate US, and generally not vice versa.”
    Mr. Nichol and the others who write articles here are often seriously lacking in their vocabularies. As several pointed out here recently, the phrase “black box” has 100 more uses than in aircraft crash investigation.
    For another example, to mention “biplane” and “triplane” and not to mention “monoplane” is an error because the monoplane is about 100 times more important than the biplane and 1000 times more important than the triplane…
    Such problems crop up in journalism all the time.

  • TheBluebird11

    I would like to BEG that whoever else posts here follow some etiquette. I haven’t seen this issue addressed here and this is getting on my last nerve and making me uncomfortable and annoyed when I visit this blog daily. The person to whom this most applies is probably oblivious but I will speak my mind.
    1. Please keep comments BRIEF and ON TOPIC.
    2. Please note that this is a public website and not a forum for one’s own blog. Anyone who has more than 2 posts’ worth to say, should get his own blog and post there.
    3. Please note that (the long-suffering) Mark Nichol is the authority here, to educate US, and generally not vice versa. Anyone who wants to carry out further exhaustive research on his topic and then educate people, should do so on his OWN blog, not Mark’s.
    There. I’ve spoken my mind. I hope people take heed and leave this site a more pleasant experience for all of us.

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