How To Use Quotation Marks

Wondering how to use quotation marks correctly? My clients often tell me they aren’t completely sure. Should they be “double” or  ‘single’? Which type is better, in which circumstances? It can be a bit tricky, but it all depends on what you want quotation marks to do.

If your business involves writing articles and reports, or if you like to be absolutely sure your web copy and blogs look professional, you have probably stopped and wondered whether you’re using quotation marks correctly.

Here are some tips that will make it easier. And you can quote me on that!

How to use quotation marks to quote someone

The easiest place to start is to talk about the literal use of quotation marks. We usually want them to indicate a direct quotation or, in other words, to quote what someone has said or written.

When a quotation is part of the sentence you are writing (it’s called an in-line quotation), you can use either single or double quotation marks around the words you are quoting. Look at these examples:

He told his students that the use of single or double quotation marks ‘was entirely a matter of personal choice’.

She emphasised that “consistency was the most important thing”, and left it totally up to them.

This rule applies to dialogue as well.

‘I prefer single quotation marks’, he said.

“Doubles work better for me”, she replied. 

Some people prefer double quotation marks when writing dialogue and quoting spoken words, but use the single type for quoting short excerpts from written work in books or articles. 

I would always recommend choosing one type and sticking with it. Personally, I think single quotation marks look neater. But whatever your choice, be consistent!

Be consistent, except when…

There’s an exception to the consistency rule. When there’s a quotation inside a quotation it’s better to use the opposite type of quotation mark from the one you generally use. This applies to in-line quotations and to dialogue. These examples will show you how:

‘Management structures in all companies were “top-down and rigid” according to one analyst, who was interviewed during the study’. (Smith, 2020).

“I asked him why, but he wouldn’t tell me and just said, ‘Mind your own business'”, said Lucy.

The example immediately above is correct, but it looks awkward. That’s because a single quotation mark is followed by a double. You can avoid that easily, by rearranging the sentence.

“I asked him why, but he just said, ‘Mind your own business’, and wouldn’t tell me”, said Lucy.

When quotations are longer – perhaps more than one line of text – you should separate them from the rest of the paragraph, on a new, indented line. In that case you don’t need to use quotation marks at all. Some people like to put quotations of this type into italics. Again, it’s a matter of choice.

What’s the correct punctuation to use?

The answer to this question rather depends on the version of English you’re using. 

Version 1: British/Australian English

Most punctuation, except question marks and exclamation points, is placed outside the quotation marks.

‘I can’t wait to try this out’, she said.

Immediately, he asked, ‘Can I go next?’

Version 2: US English

Punctuation is placed inside the quotation marks. US English users also tend to prefer double quotation marks.

“Where did it all go wrong?” he asked.

“I can’t explain it,” she replied.

Even though most people agree with this distinction, you will almost always find Version 2 in books and magazines – regardless of their country of origin. But, just to make it more confusing, print publications tend to use single quotation marks. 

Upper or lower case?

The general rule is that the first word inside quotation marks starts with an upper case letter, as in all the examples above. 

There are two exceptions:

When the first quoted word is not the beginning of a sentence, as in:

The writer agreed that ‘the process was always slower in the early stages‘.

When a complete sentence of dialogue is divided into two parts by narrated words, as in:

‘I will do it’, he said, ‘when I am ready’.

If you are quoting someone or using dialogue in your writing, make sure you know how to use quotations marks, and the punctuation that goes with them.

As you can see, it’s not an exact science, but if consistency is your keyword you will be able to ‘quote with confidence’.

For more punctuation tips, see Say Yes To Tarts …. and Shooting Clay Pigeons and Men.

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