Having taught high school English and being a writer who loves to read other aspiring authors' manuscripts and queries, I've read hundreds of poorly punctuated pages. Even the coolest, most imaginative stories are hard to enjoy when the pages are marred by technical errors.
One of the most common mistakes I see is the misuse of quotation marks. Now, let me preface this by saying that I am addressing American punctuation in non-scholarly texts. It differs slightly from county to country, which is probably the root of some of the confusion.
RULE 1: Double quotation marks (" ") are used to indicate what someone said or wrote.
If you pick up a book and see single quotation marks used for standard dialogue, it is probably not the product of an American publisher. Although the trend is shifting to double quotation marks in British publications, you will still see single quotation marks (' ') used to indicate direct quotes occasionally. There are also exceptions in scholarly writings.
RULE 2: Single quotation marks (' ') are used to indicate quoted material (or titles of poems, stories, articles) within other quoted material.
Example: Patrick said, "Mary said, 'Look! I'm using single quotation marks.'"
RULE 3: Ending punctuation goes INSIDE the quotation marks.
Right: Mary said, "The punctuation goes inside the quotation marks."
Wrong: Mary said, "The punctuation goes inside the quotation marks".
This rule even applies to single quotes:
Right: Patrick said, "Mary said, 'The punctuation goes inside the quotation marks.'"
Wrong: Patrick said, "Mary said, 'The punctuation goes inside the quotation marks'." **
Wrong: Patrick said, "Mary said, 'The punctuation goes inside the quotation marks'".
**This is the most common single quotation mark error I see. The punctuation goes inside all the quotes. There are rare exceptions, which I will address later in this post.
RULE 4: Quotation marks are used to set off direct quotes only.
Right: Carolyn said, "You should listen carefully."
Right: Carolyn said that you should listen carefully.
Wrong: Carolyn said that, "You should listen carefully."
RULE 5: The placement of question marks with quotation marks follows logic.
Yeah, this one is less concrete, but it's clear in application. If the quoted material is a question, the question mark goes inside. If the material in quotation marks is a saying or not part of the question itself, the mark goes outside. This is one of the exceptions I mentioned in RULE 3. You will also find this "logic" rule applies to other types of punctuation with regard to quotes.
Heather asked, "Did you read the QT Blog today?"
Do you believe in the saying, "Haste makes Waste"?
Note: In the second sentence, the quoted material is not the question. You cannot use more than one ending punctuation mark, so you cannot put a period inside the quote and a question mark outside of it. Most punctuation is uniform and logical. Use common sense when you come up against an uncommon situation like the second example above. The stronger mark wins. And just to make it more fun, an exclamation mark will supersede the question and suffice to end the sentence. I avoid this, because it's ...well, weird and drives critique partners nuts. It's like the Rock, Paper Scissors game of punctuation. Exclamation mark trumps question mark. The emotion and impact of the quoted material supersedes the fact it its a question. The example below is a question, but it is also a powerful proclamation. The exclamation point trumps the question mark.
Wasn't it Patrick Henry who said, "Give me liberty or give me death!"
If you have a question outside the quoted material as well as inside, use only one question mark inside the quoted material.
Did he say, "Can you hear me now?"
RULE 6: Set off quoted material with commas.
Mary said, "Set off quoted material with commas."
"Set off quoted material with commas," Mary said.
This gets more complicated when dealing with the more powerful punctuation marks like the question mark and the exclamation point. Once again, logic comes into play.
Right: "Did you see the sunrise this morning?" Suzette asked.
Wrong: "Did you see the sunrise this morning," Suzette asked?
Wrong: "Did you see the sunrise this morning," Suzette asked.
Right: "Dude. Check out that sunrise!" Elana shouted from the beach.
Wrong: "Dude. Check out that sunrise," Elana shouted from the beach!
Right: "Dude. Check out that sunrise," Elana shouted from the beach.
There are two correct options in the last set of examples because exclamation points are for impact, not function like the question mark.
Long (multiple paragraph) speeches in dialogue:
If a character's speech goes on for more than one paragraph, use double quotation marks to open the speech and at the beginning (but not at the end) of each new paragraph in the speech. Close the speech with double quotation marks at the end of the final paragraph.
Disclaimer and waiver of liability: Okay, the heading of this paragraph is overkill, but I want to let you know that I'm aware that there are exceptions to every rule. I've tried to give an accurate overview of the American use of quotation marks for dialogue. My six rules for the use of quotation marks can be verified and supplemented by Strunk and White's The Elements of Style and The Chicago Manual of Style.
I'd love to hear from you if you have questions or just want to give me a shout. marylindsey@QueryTracker.net (link in the right sidebar). Have a splendid week.
Mary Lindsey writes paranormal fiction for children and adults. Prior to attending University of Houston Law School, she received a B.A. in English Literature with a minor in Drama.
Mary can also be found on her website.