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Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Quotation Marks


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. 

Examples:  
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. 

Example:  
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.

Example: 
Did he say, "Can you hear me now?"

RULE 6:  Set off quoted material with commas.  

Examples:    
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 

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.

14 comments:

Christine Fonseca said...

Great grammar refresher. Thanks guys.

disorderly said...

THANK YOU for this post! This should be required reading for everyone who writes. E.V.E.R.Y.O.N.E. Poor punctuation and improper verbiage are two of the quickest ways to turn off readers. :-)

Everyone who writes for publication should own a copy of both Strunk and White's The Elements of Style and The Chicago Manual of Style. People who write for newspapers and magazines also should own a copy of The Associated Press' Stylebook (which changes slightly each time it's published). I can't begin to tell you how beloved you will become among editors who don't have to correct your punctuation.

Mary, do you have plans to address commas, semicolons and colons, as well? :-)

Annie said...

Thanks for posting this! I am a grammar nerd and hate it when people put commas and periods outside quotation marks. I see it all the time online.

Jenn Nixon said...

Great post! I just sent it to a friend of mine who had this exact question three weeks ago!

Thanks!

shorty411 said...

Thank you Mary for this post! I was also wondering if you can recommend what the best technical grammar books are for writing fiction. I know for research papers they recommend certain books for footnoting, is there a good one for writing fiction? Thanks!

Mary Lindsey said...

Thanks for all the kind comments and emails.

Yes, Disorderly, I do have comma, semi-colon and colon usage planned for future posts.

Hi, Shorty411. THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE and THE CHICAGO MANUAL OF STYLE are my favorite resources. I'll do a quick survey of my writer friends for other suggestions of sources that address fiction specifically. I find THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE useful for all types of writing.

Mary Lindsey said...

Thanks for all the kind comments and emails.

Yes, Disorderly, I do have comma, semi-colon and colon usage planned for future posts.

Hi, Shorty411. THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE and THE CHICAGO MANUAL OF STYLE are my favorite resources. I'll do a quick survey of my writer friends for other suggestions of sources that address fiction specifically. I find THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE useful for all types of writing.

Angie said...

Great post. As an editor, I read a lot of poorly punctuated manuscripts, too, and it really does leave a bad impression. This is really good for every writer to know.

Mary Lindsey said...

I had a good question sent by email that I'd like to address:

Q: I have characters that can communicate telepathically. I’ve been using italics to indicate thought and I’m wondering if that is correct and if I need to also include quotation marks.

A: Italics are perfect for dialogue that is not spoken. Italics are also commonly used to indicate internal dialogue like thought.

Just be sure to NOT use both quotation marks and italics together when indicating thought or silent communication like telepathy. I'm sure there are some rare exceptions, but I can't think of one.

Mary Lindsey said...

I bet you guys caught my missing comma in the comment above, huh? :)

Angela said...

Awesome--I'm bookmarking this one for reference. I get messed up on the '." /.'" deal.

:-)

Sarah Jensen said...

I ain't as dumb as I thunk.
:)
I actually knew most of this, and thanks for clearing up the point I'd always wondered about. ?! or !? = !
Good to know!
I'll pass this along. Thanks Mary.

ElanaJ said...

Dude, I love this post!

Mary Lindsey said...

Ack! I just found a book in which telepathic communications are both italicized and put in quotation marks. Probably because there is a lot of internal dialogue that is italicized in addition to the telepathy. Sheesh. Like I said, there are always exceptions. :)