7 Examples of Incorrect Punctuation with Quotation Marks

By Mark Nichol - 4 minute read

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This post points out common errors committed when reporting what has been said or written. Each example is followed by a discussion of the problem and a revision that provides a solution.

1. She pointed out that, “Speed matters — the faster an organization learns, the faster it evolves.”

The quotation, in isolation, is a complete sentence and is properly capitalized. But when dropped into a sentence, as in the example above, it becomes part of the sentence, just as if it were a paraphrase (“She pointed out that speed matters — the faster an organization learns, the faster it evolves.”) Therefore, a full-sentence quotation integrated into a full sentence like this is demoted and no longer merits capitalization—nor should it be preceded by a comma, because “she pointed out that” is not an attribution (see the example below pertaining to attribution), because it includes the transitional term that, which is essentially redundant to a comma: “She pointed out that ‘speed matters — the faster an organization learns, the faster it evolves.’”

2. “On the outside, he’s a warrior, but on the inside, he’s controlled and focused,” is how one of John Smith’s teammates described him to us.

Similarly, when a quotation is integrated into a sentence at the head of a sentence, omit a comma at the end of the quotation unless it is necessary for the sentence’s grammatical structure: “On the outside, he’s a warrior, but on the inside, he’s controlled and focused” is how one of John Smith’s teammates described him to us. (In the sentence “She assured us that ‘he is normally very well behaved,’ as if that had anything to do with it,” the comma correctly separates the main clause from the subordinate clause.)

3. Jones screamed “help me” and “you’re assaulting me” as the detective forced her into an unmarked car.

Quotations that follow an attribution—a phrase that identifies the speaker or writer and explicitly describes the character of the communication with a verb (such as said) and perhaps an adverb (such as “said sarcastically” or “said quietly”) or an adverbial phrase (such as “said as if to a child” or “said the other day”), are followed by a comma. In addition, when the quotation is a complete sentence, it should be capitalized: “Jones screamed, ‘Help me!’ as the detective forced her into an unmarked car.” (And, as further edited, an exclamation point should be included when a quotation is described as being delivered with volume or passion, just as a question mark is necessary when asking a question.)

If the attribution pertains to more than one quotation, the quotations are treated as a compound phrase (using the generic structure “[this] and [that]”) and thus an additional comma, after and, is not required: “Smith screamed, ‘Help me!’ and ‘You’re assaulting me!’ as the detective forced her into an unmarked car.” (Here, unlike in the previous example, punctuation following the quotation is valid because like question marks, exclamation points, which are otherwise interchangeable with commas, provide contextual information that commas do not.)

(This post about attribution and quotations is one of many at DailyWritingTips.com that discuss the topics; search the site using the keywords “attribution” and “quotations” for more information.)

4. His next comment chilled me, “We will be watching everything you do.”

When what appears to be an attribution is self-contained—structured as a complete thought—the quotation should be set off from the phrase by a colon rather than a comma: “His next comment chilled me: ‘We will be watching everything you do.’”

5. I heard someone utter the words, “I’m sorry, but I can’t help you.”

When a quotation is preceded by a phrase that provides context but is not a formal attribution, no punctuation should precede it: “I heard someone utter the words ‘I’m sorry, but I can’t help you.’” (This error implies that those words are the only words; see the next example for more details.)

6. In this issue, we explore the question, “Are companies curious enough to really understand all aspects of their corporate culture?”

The inclusion of a comma here incorrectly implies that a reference has been made in a previous sentence to a specific question, which is explicitly reproduced in this sentence; the resulting implication is that only one question exists, and this is it. But here, “the question” and the quotation that constitutes the question are appositives—two ways to describe an idea (here, a generic description of a thing—a question—and a specific reproduction of the thing)—and should not be interrupted by punctuation: “In this issue, we explore the question ‘Are companies curious enough to really understand all aspects of their corporate culture?’

7. How many times do you want to reheat your leftovers? At some point, you have to say I’m not going to reheat this. You’ve microwaved it six times, and it’s no longer food.”

In this passage, “I’m not going to reheat this” is a conjectural statement the writer is proposing that reader might say at some point. Even though the reader may not actually speak it or write it, the writer should style it as a quotation—and treat “you have to say” as an attribution: “How many times do you want to reheat your leftovers? At some point, you have to say, ‘I’m not going to reheat this.’ You’ve microwaved it six times, and it’s no longer food.”

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3 Responses to “7 Examples of Incorrect Punctuation with Quotation Marks”

  • P H

    Small typo – number seven. An errant quotation mark has found it’s way onto the end of the example.

    Great article though, taught me something I didn’t know I needed to know!

  • Al

    I do not understand why you included almost every example of the correct usage in an additional set of quotation marks instead of just indicating it is the correct usage by using a colon and then putting the sentence after it – maybe in bold or italic type like the original? It is very confusing and harder to follow the way it is formatted now. You could also drop it down a line after the colon, indent and/or highlight it. Just a thought…Other than that, I really enjoy this site. Thanks.

  • Michael W. Perry, medical writer

    I disagree with so much of this that I’m not going to take the time to deal with all the issues other than to point out that the no capitalization of the #1 quote clashes with the all-too-obvious capitalization of the quote in #6.

    I’m sure there are pedantic sources for all your claims about incorrectness, but the result is such a complicated muddle, that I’m going to stick to my old ways. I understand them. My readers understand them. That’s enough.

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