Grammar: Quotation Marks [‘ ’] or [“ ”]
Quotation marks (or inverted commas) may be used singly or doubly. Single marks are generally preferred in British English, while double marks
are obligatory in American English.
‘I don't understand’, said Pat, ‘why we need passports to travel to other
The actual words spoken by Pat comprise direct speech and must, therefore, be marked off from the rest of the sentence by quotation marks.
But quotation marks are not used with indirect speech (speech that is reported rather than quoted) –
Pat said that she did not understand why we need passports to travel to
other EU countries.
The same rule applies to reproduced text. If a writer wishes to use the words of another writer, or even her own from another source, the passage
is enclosed in quotation marks. Short quotations of up to forty words usually appear in the same paragraph in which they are announced –
Albert Einstein once said, ‘The ideals which have always shone before me
and filled me with the joy of living are goodness, beauty and truth’.
The practice for longer quotations varies. In publications such as newspapers, books and magazines, the house style usually requires the same
rule: one paragraph unless the quotation itself requires more –
Albert Einstein once said, ‘The ideals which have always shone before
me and filled me with the joy of living are goodness, beauty and truth. To
make a goal of comfort or happiness has never appealed to me; a system
of ethics built on this basis would be sufficient only for a herd of cattle.
‘Without the sense of collaborating with like-minded beings in the pursuit
of the ever unattainable in art and scientific research, my life would have
There are three points to note here. Firstly, when a new paragraph is required, it is single-spaced and has its first line indented by a few spaces.
Secondly – and this applies to all quotations wherever they appear – quotation marks are required to open every paragraph, but to close only the
last. If the first paragraph in our last example had been closed with a quotation mark, the reader would assume that the second was a new quotation.
Thirdly, the comma used immediately before the quotation is optional. It is traditional to use one, but some authorities regard it as redundant.2
In word-processed scripts and some publications, on the other hand, the practice is to use block quotations in which the entire quotation is indented
(not just the first lines) and the quotation marks omitted –
Albert Einstein once said
The ideals which have always shone before me and filled me with the joy
of living are goodness, beauty and truth. To make a goal of comfort or
happiness has never appealed to me; a system of ethics built on this basis
would be sufficient only for a herd of cattle.
Without the sense of collaborating with like-minded beings in the pursuit
of the ever unattainable in art and scientific research, my life would have
In publications, the quoted paragraphs are sometimes written in a different, often smaller, font from that of the main text. We often also see a colon
used in place of the optional comma before the quotation, but the practice is incorrect when, as above, the beginning of the quotation continues the
sentence begun by the introductory phrase, Albert Einstein said…
In dialogue, a new paragraph is required for each change of speaker, irrespective of length –
Inspector Crawford sat on the sofa, resting an arm along the back.
‘What were you doing last Thursday evening?’, he asked.
‘Thursday? That's when I go to my aerobics class’, said Joanne.
‘And you attended last Thursday?’
His eyes, locked on hers, revealed nothing and Joanne hoped he was
sufficiently experienced not to misinterpret her blush.
For quotations within quotations, double marks are used if the outer ones are single, and single marks if the outer ones are double –
‘Reason, Hume believes, is “the slave of the passions”.’
Quotation marks are traditionally used to enclose the titles of articles, short poems and short stories –
‘The Sense of Justice’ by John Rawls, in Joel Feinberg (ed.), Moral
Concepts, Oxford Readings in Philosophy, OUP, Suffolk, 1975, p. 120 ff.
‘The Darkling Thrush’, by Thomas Hardy
‘The Open Window’, by Saki
But newspapers and some referencing systems, now cite titles and articles without quotation marks.
The names of newspapers, books and films take italics.
When a word or expression is defined, the definition (or gloss) appears in quotation marks –
B.C. stands for ‘Before Christ’.
When the word to be defined is given in its capacity as a word, it appears in italics –
The word democracy derives from the Greek words demos ‘people’ and
But note that, if the word or expression is paraphrased rather than literally defined, the information is enclosed in commas as an inessential
clause and does not take quotation marks –
Deontology, the theory that morality is determined by the notion of duty
rather than consequence, is the foundation of Kant’s ethical philosophy.
Quotation marks are sometimes used to indicate irony or scorn. In this capacity, the quotation marks substitute for the expression so-called –
The Met Office announced that it had been the coldest ‘summer’ since
Her life savings were stolen by her ‘friend’ and neighbour.
They are also sometimes used to show that the expression is not the author’s but part of the jargon of some field of study or expertise –
The 400-metre record breaker went on to say that, ever since he could
remember, his ‘significant others’ were sportsmen and athletes.
but this use is condescending if the readership can reasonably be supposed to be familiar with the expression –
The owners of dozens of vehicles damaged in the freak hail storm were
dismayed to learn that their insurance companies refused to pay out for
such ‘acts of God’.
The question of whether to place other punctuation marks inside or outside quotation marks is a controversial one, both the British and American
practices being to some extent at variance with logic. The rule would seem obvious: other punctuation marks appear inside the quotation marks
when they are part of the quotation itself, and outside when they are not. It is one of life’s enduring mysteries, however, why neither British nor
American conventions follows this simple principle.
In the case of commas, both versions of the language adhere illogically to the rule that they always appear inside the closing quotation mark –
‘Tact,’ said Abraham Lincoln, ‘is the ability to describe others as they
This is how both versions of the language would present this sentence (except for the substitution of double quotation marks in the case of American
English). But it can be seen at a glance that the first of the two commas is ungrammatically placed. The comma after tact, that is, is actually the first
of a pair that isolate the writer’s comment, said Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln’s actual words contain no commas at all –
‘Tact is the ability to describe others as they see themselves.’
As part of the writer’s sentences, then, rather than Lincoln’s, the comma should be placed outside the quotation marks –
‘Tact’, said Abraham Lincoln, ‘is the ability to describe others as they
With full stops, British and American practices differ, the British this time being more consistent with common sense –
Abraham Lincoln said, ‘tact is the ability to describe others as they see
Abraham Lincoln said, “tact is the ability to describe others as they see
What we have done here is to recast the sentence so that it essentially belongs to the quoting author, not the person quoted. The full stop, therefore,
should end the entire sentence (as in the British version), not just the quoted passage (as in the American).
The use of question marks is a little more sensible in both British and American English. They appear correctly outside the quotation marks when the
question is the quoting writer's –
Was it Shakespeare or Donne who said, ‘No man is an island, entire of
and inside the marks when the quotation is the question –
The police officer said, ‘May I see some identification, sir?’
But things get complicated again when a quoted question appears in a sentence that is itself a question –
Was it Cain or Abel who said, ‘Am I my brother's keeper?’?
Although a little clumsy looking, this is the logical punctuation: two questions, two question marks. But both British and American English diverge
again and use just one question mark, placing it inside the quotation marks –
Was it Cain or Abel who said, ‘Am I my brother's keeper?’
To its credit, however, the Modern Humanities Research Association insists on the logical use –
Why does Shakespeare give Malcolm the banal question ‘O! by
The problem for the writer, of course, is which method of punctuation to use. The choice can be only hers but, if she intends to publish, it is unlikely
that the logical versions will survive the editor’s pencil, whether British or American.
Quotation marks should not be used as excuses for clichés when the writer cannot think of anything more original. Clichés are bad enough in
themselves without drawing attention to them –
When I first saw the rock from the bus, I expected it to be ‘a piece of
cake’, but then we all ‘live and learn’. James helped me a great deal,
though. I'd always thought him a bit stuffy, but he turned out to be a
(See also clichés, pleonasms and verbosity.)
1 Albert Einstein in I Believe, George Allen and Unwin, London, 1965, p. 27.
2 E.g. R. L. Trask, The Penguin Guide to Punctuation, Penguin Books, London, p. 97.
3 Block paragraphing, in fact, is a standard feature of word processing. On this page, for example, the paragraphs of the principal text are separated
by double spaces and have no first-line indentations.
4 Jonathan Wolff, Political Philosophy, Revised Edition, OUP, Oxford, 2006, p. 57.
5 MHRA Style Book, Fifth Edition, Modern Humanities Research Association, 1996, p. 35.