Prescriptivist’s Corner: Quotation Marks

It seems like a silly question, but when is it proper to use quotation marks? And how should they be used? Quotation marks are one of the basic forms of punctuation, but they are among the most often misused. And the situation is complicated because American and British styles differ on the point. (And on the name. They’re inverted commas in Britain.)

As to the first question, when should quotation marks be used, there are six different situations when they are appropriate.

1) When making a direct quotation.
2) When referring to a word as a word, as in: the word “word.”
3) When using a word ironically or when not in agreement with the word’s applicability, as in: Vinnie provides loans at “reasonable” rates of interest.
4) When coining a new word or using slang or a technical term that will likely be foreign to the reader, as in: the “vig” was thirty percent. But quotation marks should only be used for the first reference.
5) To mark the titles of poems, articles, essays, and book chapters.
6) To mark epithets, as in: Vinnie “The Squid” Calamari or Louis XIV, “the Sun King.” Commonly accepted epithets that substitute for the real name, like Babe Ruth, need not have quotation marks.

Quotation marks should not be used for emphasis. If you want to emphasize a word, use italics or a bold font. If those fonts are not available (say you’re still using a typewriter or using ASCII text), then underlining or *marking* with asterisks are the appropriate ways to denote emphasis.

Italics are also acceptable for marking neologisms (number 4 above).

Okay, so we know now when to use quotation marks, but how do we use them? First, we’ll deal with the American practice and then note the differences between that and British practice.

Direct quotations should be surrounded by double quotation marks, as in: Vinnie said, “if the payment is late, you’ll need crutches.” If paraphrasing, do not use marks, as in: Vinnie told me if we didn’t pay, he’d break our legs.

Single quotation marks should be used for quotes within quotes, as in: She said, “Mr. Calamari stated in his testimony that, ‘there ain’t no such thing as the Mafia.’” For quotes within quotes within quotes, you revert to double quotation marks again, alternating them for each subsequent nested quotation.

Quotations that are inset in block form, usually long excerpts, do not require quotation marks.

When marking running quotations that are several paragraphs long, use open quotation marks on each paragraph, but use the closing marks only on the final paragraph:

Vinnie said, “I was shocked and horrified to find that the man had been threatened.
“I’m a businessman, I have no need for threats.”

When marking dialogue, place each speakers’ words in their own paragraphs with their own quotation marks, no matter how brief the words are:

“Did he pay up?”
“Any trouble?”
“No. He didn’t want to pay at first, but he understood real quick.”

Do not use quotation marks in Q-and-A or interview format where each statement is preceded by the speaker’s name or other identifying notation:

Prosecutor: Did you threaten to break the man’s legs?
Calamari: No, it was a friendly conversation.

At the end of the quoted material, place periods and commas within the quotation marks, regardless of whether or not they are part of the quote, as in: “That’s three Gs you’ll owe me next week,” Vinnie said.

Exclamation points and question marks are treated differently than periods or commas. They go inside the closing mark if they are part of the quoted material and outside if they aren’t. For example: Vinnie asked, “do you have the money you owe me?” and Did Vinnie say, “I’ll break your legs”?

As we mentioned, British usage varies somewhat from the American style described above. The first major change is with the double vs. single quotation marks. British practice is to reverse the sequence, single marks are used first and double marks for quotes within quotes: She said, ‘Dinsdale Piranha told me that if I didn’t pay I would “go for a swim in the Thames”.’

The second major difference in style is that British usage requires you follow the same rules for periods and commas as you do for question marks and exclamation points. They go inside the quotation marks if they are part of the quoted material and outside if not. Note the example at the end of the last paragraph. The period at the end is not part of Piranha’s quotation; it is part of the woman’s. So, it is outside one mark and inside the other.

Which style, American or British, you use depends on who you are writing for. The editorial rules of the publisher should prevail. If you have the luxury of choosing the style, it really doesn’t matter so long as you are consistent.

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