5 Functions of Quotation Marks

By Mark Nichol

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This post discusses the use of quotation marks to distinguish dialogue, parts of compositions, phrases as phrases, scare quotes, and epithets.

1. For Dialogue
Quotation marks are placed around speech in fiction (to distinguish it from attribution and narrative) and nonfiction (for the same reasons, in addition to emphasizing that it is recorded verbatim and not a paraphrase of the actual wording). Quotation marks are also appropriate for conjectural speech (for example, “What if he says, ‘We’re using John’s plan instead’?) or for representing the idea of speech (“People often say ‘myself’ when they should say ‘me’).

Note: In examples in this and other posts, quoted material is often enclosed in single rather than double quotation marks because I use double quotation marks to frame the examples. In American English, other than in special cases such as setting off terms in botany, linguistics, and philosophy, this is the only general purpose for single quotation marks.

2. For Parts of Compositions
Note: The following rules pertain to when titles of parts of compositions are referenced in a written narrative, not to their use as headings in the source material itself.

Quotation marks identify article titles in publications and chapter titles in books to distinguish the parts of the whole from the whole itself. (Italicize the publication titles themselves; one exception is unpublished manuscripts, the titles of which are also enclosed in quotation marks.) Similarly, episodes of television programs, as well as those of other audiovisual (or audio-only) presentations such as podcasts, should be enclosed in quotation marks, while program titles are italicized. Song titles, too, are placed in quotation marks to distinguish them from album titles.

Quotation marks also identify poems, essays, and short stories to distinguish their titles from those of the anthologies of which they may be (or might originally have been) a part. In online contexts, titles of blog entries, and those of sections of websites, are enclosed in quotation marks. Titles of speeches, as well as those of talks and panels that are part of conferences and other formal meeting events, are also so emphasized.

3. For a Phrase as a Phrase
Although self-referential words are italicized (as in “Moon and month are related”), phrases as phrases are enclosed in quotation marks (as in “‘Reared its ugly head’ is a cliché.”)

4. For Scare Quotes
Words and phrases are sometimes enclosed in quotation marks to signal that they are being used in a special sense, though this usage is best reserved for ironic emphasis or to clarify that the writer is using but not endorsing the term. Employing such emphasis for slang is not advised.

5. For Epithets
When nicknames are used in isolation, do not enclose them in quotation marks (“The film was released four months after the death of the King of Pop”). But do so when they appear within or after the person’s actual name: “John ‘Duke’ Wayne,” “Erwin Rommel, ‘the Desert Fox.’” (But compare the latter with “Alexander the Great lived to be only thirty-three,” in which “Alexander the Great” is so styled because the epithet is integrated with the name, not set off by punctuation.)

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7 Responses to “5 Functions of Quotation Marks”

  • Michael W. Perry

    Thanks for a good list and one that includes “scare quotes.” I call them “sneer quotes,” since while they are sometimes used to scare, that’s a subset of their more general use, which is to sneer at the person being half-quoted.

    Often their use is silly, pedantic, and insulting to readers. The author, typically a reporter with an axe to grind, hates the person he’s half-quoting some much he can’t let any opportunity pass without sneering. He’s also treating his readers as too stupid to realize that they should be sneering at these remarks. I think that’s bosh. Quoting someone doesn’t mean you agree with what they’re saying or that you have to force your sneer into every context.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Alexander the Great could be considered to be a demigod, too.
    According to some mythological tales, his father was actually Zeus, the king of the gods. They say that Zeus took on the form of a serpent (snake) and he appeared in the bedchamber of Alexander’s mother, where he impregnated her!
    Other “Greats” w/o the mythology: Charles the Great (Charlemagne), Frederick the Great, Peter the Great, Darius the Great.
    On the other hand, the duke Charles Martel of France got his “surname” because he was called “Charles the Hammer”. He hammered the invading Moors at the Battle of Tours, France, and hence “saved Europe for Christianity”.

  • Michael Tevlin

    Glad to know what scare quotes mean. Some in the communications business mistakenly use that term to mean pull quotes.

    On another note, I think it would be better if you did not use double quotation marks to frame examples. I’m sure you’ve put a lot of thought into this, as it comes up a lot. For what it’s worth, I think it makes reading the examples cumbersome.

  • Dale A. Wood

    I agree with Mr. Tevlin completely.
    Write: What if he says, “We’re using John’s plan instead?”
    The colon is essential, and then the rest is less confusing, really!
    For example: What if he says, “We’re using John’s plan instead?”

  • D.A.W.

    Re Mr. Tevlin’s idea.
    For example
    This is a actually a form of punctuation that is borrowed from German.

  • D.A.W.

    Sorry about #5, but what happened was that the computer system refused to print what I actually wrote. So, please disregard it. It is a salient kind of malfunction that has happened before – for other writers here, such as venqax – and the webmaster SHOULD NOT TOLERATE IT.

  • D.A.W.

    Salient malfunctions! As plain as the nose on your face, but nobody does anything about it. Such we have to deal with re: computer scientists.

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