5 Functions of Quotation Marks
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 (Italicize the publication titles themselves; one exception is unpublished manuscripts, the titles of which are also enclosed in quotation marks.)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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