8 Rules About Punctuation and Quotation Marks
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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