Grammar Tips for Using Quotes

Do you know where those pesky quote marks should go?

The End of the Line

A forty-year-old friend of mine signed up on She has been fielding the most interesting introductory emails. Not interesting in the way of making her interested, but interesting in the sense of why these men bother presenting themselves. The most notable thing about the responses is that the men, all in their late thirties to mid forties, cannot write a complete sentence or spell comon englis werds. Perhaps the explanation is that they cannot read the profile that describes her as a teacher with five years of college education and an avid reader.

Back to grammar, which is far easier to understand. A reader asked about those pesky quotation marks and their accompanying punctuation. The quick rule is that commas and periods go inside closing quotation marks. Now here is the sticky wicket[1]: other marks of punctuation like colons, semicolons, dashes, question marks, and exclamation points go inside only if they belong to the quotation. So, we write:

Who wrote “Begin the Beguine”?

Who wrote “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”

Take, for example, the first line of “To a Skylark”: “Hail to thee, blithe spirit!” [2]

Single quotation marks are only used if the words being quoted are inside double quotes. For example:

He asked, “Who wrote ‘Begin the Beguine’?”

“Who wrote ‘Where Have All the Flowers Gone?’” she asked.

When you use quotes to set off an unusual word or phrase in prose, the same rule applies. : He was a “hale and hearty” kind of guy. She said, “He was a ‘hale and hearty’ kind of guy.”

Quotation marks are used only to show something is spoken aloud. Do not put quotation marks around thoughts. You can use italics for this, although it’s not necessary and can be distracting. She thought, Who is that tall stranger? You can also simply run the thought into the sentence: She wondered who the tall stranger was.

A recent vogue among publishers is to omit the quotation marks in dialogue. One style is to precede dialogue with an em dash—. If you are writing for publication, stick to conventional usage for your manuscript. Any innovations can be discussed with the publisher before the final copy is prepared.

            One convention that has changed since many of us learned to type is the number of spaces after the punctuation at the end of a sentence. Whereas I was taught to put two spaces, one is now insisted upon. You can use the “find and replace” function on your word processing program to correct a manuscript before sending it out.

            Oh! And while you’re at it! Limit the exclamation points; curtail the use of semicolons as well by using “and” or beginning a new sentence. Save colons for use before lists. You want clear readable prose, not an obstacle course of punctuation marks.

            An editor recently commented that a search for a grammar rule on the Internet resulted in contradictory recommendations. My advice is to buy a single style guide like The Chicago Manual of Style, which is widely accepted by publishers, and back it up with a book specific to grammar like The Little, Brown Handbook. Use these and these alone. The Internet, as my friend found with online dating, has limitations when it comes to matching you with the reliable information you’re seeking.

[1] Did you know: A wicket is the playing surface used in cricket. A “sticky wicket” refers to the difficulty of playing on a wet and sticky pitch and by extension means “a difficult situation.”

[2] Example from page 243, 15th Edition, The Chicago Manual of Style, 2003.

Peggy Tabor Millin  Copyright 2008

Document Actions