Punctuation - Quotation marks

Quotation marks are used to demonstrate very clearly which words are being spoken (or were spoken) and which parts of the sentences are merely description.

  • “I hear she’s having an extra-marital affair,” said the postman.

In this sentence, I hear she’s having an extra-marital affair are the words actually spoken by the postman and we also have a few words of description to show who said them: said the postman.

The words within the quotation marks must be the words actually spoken and there should be no change of any sort. This (below) would not be acceptable:

  • The postman told me that “he thought she was having an extra-marital affair.”

Nowadays, there seems to be a growing wish to use single commas rather than the double so-called inverted commas. This may be in line with the general simplification of some elements of punctuation more recently. In other words, you are just as likely to see either of these:

  • ‘Her husband is a woman-hating misogynist,’ she replied.
  • “Her husband is a woman-hating misogynist,” she replied.

The description can go at several different points in the sentence and can vary according to the writer’s approach but the words that were spoken must never change. They must be exactly the words used by the speaker.

  • ‘No,’ he replied, ‘he’s a model husband.’
  • ‘No, he’s a model husband,’ exclaimed the postman.
  • The postman answered, ‘No, he’s a model husband.’

The sentence that the writer decides upon, and the sentence spoken by the original person, are treated in slightly different ways. Here is the speaker’s sentence:

  • I think he’s after her money.
Here is the writer’s sentence:

  • ‘I think he’s after her money,’ said the woman.

Here we can see that the speaker’s sentence does not end in a full-stop but with a comma, and the full-stop comes after the description.

It’s important to make a note about the order of the full stop and the quotation marks in a sentence. The rule that covers almost all cases in general English is that the quotation marks come after the full-stop, exclamation mark or question mark at the end of the sentence.

  • She said, ‘It’s been a very difficult time.’
  • ‘I’m absolutely amazed!’
  • ‘Do you mean that they aren’t married?’

While there are cases where a question mark or exclamation mark could go outside the quotation marks these are very unusual and infrequent cases.

However, it is slightly different when quoting someone else’s writing in your own essay, report or dissertation. You generally need to retain only one punctuation mark at the end of the sentence. This could be the punctuation from the quotation or it could be from the essay writer’s sentence, depending on circumstances. If the quotation is just a phrase or a minor part of the overall sentence, the quote is delimited with a quotation mark and the essay writer’s full stop goes at the very end of the sentence after the quotation mark. On the other hand, if the quotation is really the whole sentence but with a few added words to introduce the quotation, the quoted writer’s punctuation is retained.

  • The United Nations inspectors tried to find what Washington had described as "weapons of mass destruction".
  • Hobbes argued that without strong government life would be "nasty, brutish and short".
  • Brigg asserted, "All teachers should focus on the needs of the learners."

Where the description breaks up a spoken sentence, the second part of the sentence will not need a capital letter.

  • ‘It’s late,’ he said, ‘and I should be getting home.’

If there are two spoken sentences, then there must be a full stop and a capital letter.

  • ‘It’s late,’ he said. ‘I should be getting home.’

There are two more uses for quotation marks and in these cases they are invariably single marks and they don’t surround quotations at all!

Firstly, if we name a poem, article or section of some sort from a book or newspaper or journal, we generally use single commas to pick it out. He read ‘The road not taken’ to the whole class.

  • There’s an interesting article in today’s newspaper entitled ‘A generation gap’.
  • However, we don’t normally use these single quotation marks when referring to well-known books, plays and films.

    • He’s read the Bible right through from start to finish.
    • Have you read Gone with the Wind?
    • Catch 22 was one of the most widely read books of its generation.
    • I hear that this year’s production of Henry V has not been very well received.
    • I’ve watched Titanic 20 times!

    But if in doubt, it is safer to use the quotation marks.

    Secondly, if we use a word in an ironic way, or in a way that is not quite the normal meaning, we can use single commas to indicate that we are using that word in a special way.

    • I found it an ‘interesting’ experience but not one I’d care to repeat.
    • The whole evening was ‘delightful’ and I couldn’t wait to get home.


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