Quotation marks are primarily used to indicate material that is being reproduced word for word, as well as some other important uses.
This entry consists of the following sections:
Though not necessarily logical, the American rules for multiple punctuation with quotation marks are firmly established. (See here for a brief explanation of the British style.)
Commas and periods that are part of the overall sentence go inside the quotation marks, even though they aren’t part of the original quotation.
Correct: “The best investments today,” according to Smith, “are commodities and emerging-market stocks.”
Incorrect: “The best investments today”, according to Smith, “are commodities and emerging-market stocks”.
(The original text quoted above is as follows: “The best investments today are commodities and emerging-market stocks, not domestic stocks and bonds.”)
Unless they are part of the original quotation, all marks other than commas or periods are placed outside the quotation marks.
Correct: She provides a thorough list of problems in her most recent article, “Misery in Paradise”; she doesn’t provide a solution.
Incorrect: She provides a thorough list of problems in her most recent article, “Misery in Paradise;” she doesn’t provide a solution.
Correct: Wasn’t it Dickens who wrote, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”?
Incorrect: Wasn’t it Dickens who wrote, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times?”
For more on the proper use of multiple punctuation at the end of a sentence, see here.
There are two ways to incorporate quotations in your writing: run-in quotations and block quotations.
Short quotations can generally be run in to the main text using quotation marks.
In his novel White Noise, Don DeLillo neatly summarizes the materialist philosophy: “It’s all this activity in the brain and you don’t know what’s you as a person and what’s some neuron that just happens to fire or just happens to misfire.”
Longer quotations should be set off from the main text, and are referred to as block quotations. Because the quoted material is set off from the main text, it is not necessary to use quotation marks. Style varies, but at a minimum a block quotation should have a bigger left-hand margin than the main text. In contrast to the main text, a block quotation might also have a bigger right-hand margin, be in a smaller or otherwise different font, or have reduced line spacing.
In Walden, Henry David Thoreau makes the case for following one’s dreams:
I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him; or the old laws be expanded, and interpreted in his favor in a more liberal sense, and he will live with the license of a higher order of beings.
How do you determine if your quotation is short (allowing it to be incorporated into the main text) or long (requiring a block quotation)? It depends. For academic writing, the Modern Language Association (MLA) requires block quotations whenever the quoted material exceeds four lines, while the American Psychological Association (APA) requires block quotations for anything exceeding forty words. If you are not subject to a specific rule, establish your own (fifty words is reasonable) and use it consistently throughout your document.
The comma is the mark most frequently used to introduce quoted material.
The flight attendant asked, “May I see your boarding pass?”
Buddha says, “Even death is not to be feared by one who has lived wisely.”
A colon should be used when the text introducing the quoted material could stand as a sentence on its own. It is also the mark most commonly used to introduce a block quotation.
In Food Rules, Michael Pollan summarizes his extensive writing about food with seven words of advice: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
A period can be used to introduce a block quotation when the introductory text stands on its own as a complete sentence. In such cases, a colon is also proper—and sometimes preferable.
When the quoted material flows directly from your introductory text, no punctuation should be used before the quotation. A very short quotation may also be introduced without punctuation. The unpunctuated lead-in is most commonly used with run-in quotations, but it is also appropriate for introducing block quotations that flow directly from the introductory text.
In her closing statement, the prosecutor spoke forcefully of the defendant’s “callous disregard for human life.”
Though marshaling little evidence, the authors claim that “over half of British prisoners come from single-parent households.”
We tried to persuade him, but he said “No way.”
The phrase “be that as it may” appears far too often in this manuscript.
When a run-in quotation contains quotation marks within the quoted material itself, use single quotation marks in their place. When the material being quoted contains a quotation within a quotation (i.e., something in single quotation marks), use double quotation marks.
The author’s final argument is less convincing: “When Brown writes of ‘interpreting the matter through a “structuralist” lens,’ he opens himself to the same criticism he made earlier in his own paper.”
Quotation marks can be used when referring to a specific word or letter. (Some writers instead use italics for this purpose.)
In the previous sentence, “letter” was properly spelled with two “t”s.
As an alternative to parentheses, quotation marks can be used to enclose a translation. In this case, it is necessary to set the translation off with commas.
His knowledge of Portuguese is limited to obrigado, “thank you,” and adeus, “goodbye.”
Less commonly, single quotation marks are used in place of parentheses, in which case the translation is not set off with commas. Also, any punctuation otherwise required by the structure of the sentence is placed outside the single quotation marks.
His knowledge of Portuguese is limited to obrigado ‘thank you’ and adeus ‘goodbye’.
Scare quotes are used to cast doubt on a word or phrase, or to emphasize that the word or phrase is being used as a euphemism. Scare quotes are best used in moderation.
He rarely spoke of the “incident” that caused him to leave his previous employer.
The think tank’s “analysis” of the issue left much to be desired.
When inserted in the middle of a person’s actual name, a nickname should appear in quotation marks.
Henry M. “Hank” Paulson Jr.
Greg “The Shark” Norman
In informal writing, feet and inches are sometimes expressed as, for example, 5′ 10″ (read: five feet and ten inches). Technically, the mark designating feet is a prime; the mark designating inches is a double prime. These marks are available in most word processors, though many people simply use single and double quotation marks: 5’ 10”.
Periods and commas are placed outside the prime and double prime marks.