Guidelines for Using Quotation Marks Correctly

American English Edition

Quotation marks

Quotation marks, sometimes referred to as quotes or inverted commas, are punctuation marks (curly or "straight") most often used in pairs to to identify the beginning and end of a passage attributed to another and repeated word for word.

In British English, quotation marks are often called inverted commas. Also known as quote marks, quotes, and speech marks.

In the U.S., periods and commas always go inside the quotation marks. In the U.K., periods and commas go inside the quotation marks only for a complete quoted sentence; otherwise, they go outside.

In all varieties of English, semicolons and colons go outside the quotation marks.

Most American style guides recommend using single marks to enclose a quotation that appears within another quotation:

Note that the British customarily reverse this order: first using single quotation marks—or 'inverted commas'—and then turning to double quotation marks to enclose quotations within quotations.

Here are some basic guidelines for using quotation marks correctly in American English.

Direct Quotations

Use double quotation marks (" ") to enclose a direct quotation:

  • After telling an audience that young people today "think work is a four-letter word," Hillary Rodham Clinton said she apologized to her daughter.
  • "If a man does not keep pace with his companions," wrote Henry David Thoreau, "perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer."

Keep in mind that direct quotations repeat a speaker's exact words. In contrast, indirect quotations are summaries or paraphrases of someone else's words. Don't use quotation marks around indirect quotations:

  • Direct quotation: Elsa said, "I'm too tired to go to choir practice. I'm heading to bed."
  • Indirect quotation: Elsa said that she was skipping choir practice because she was tired.

Titles

Use double quotation marks to enclose the titles of songs, short stories, essays, poems, and articles:

  • Softly, almost tenderly, Legree recited the lyrics to the song "She Made Toothpicks out of the Timber of My Heart."
  • After reading Poe's story "The Tell-Tale Heart," I couldn't sleep for a week.
  • The first draft of my favorite E. B. White essay, "Once More to the Lake," was a letter that White wrote to his brother a week after their mother's death.
  • When everyone finally stopped talking, Boomer recited the poem "Remember" by Christina Rossetti.

As a general rule, don't put quotation marks around the titles of books, newspapers, films, or magazines; instead, put those titles in italics

Quotations Within Quotations

Use a pair of single quotation marks (' ') to enclose a title, direct quotation, or piece of dialogue that appears within another quotation:

  • Josie once said, "I don't read much poetry, but I love the sonnet 'Be-Bop-a-Lula.'"

Notice that two separate quotation marks appear at the end of the sentence: a single mark to close the title and a double mark to close the direct quotation.

Commas and Periods Inside Quotation Marks

When a comma or a period appears at the end of a quotation, put it inside the quotation mark:

  • "Gluttony is an emotional disease," Peter DeVries once wrote, "a sign that something is eating us."

Note: In the U.K., periods and commas go inside the quotation marks only for a complete quoted sentence; otherwise, they go outside.

Other Marks of Punctuation With Quotation Marks

When a semicolon or a colon appears at the end of a quotation, put it outside the quotation mark:

  • John Wayne never said, "A man's gotta do what a man's gotta do"; however, he did say, "A man ought to do what's right."

When a question mark or an exclamation point appears at the end of a quotation, put it inside the quotation mark if it belongs to the quotation:

  • Gus sang, "How Can I Miss You If You Don't Go Away?"

But if the question mark or exclamation point does not belong to the quotation but instead to the sentence as a whole, put it outside the quotation mark:

  • Did Jenny really sing the Spinal Tap song "Break Like the Wind"?

Double vs Single Quotation Marks

In The Oxford Companion to the English Language, Robert Allen notes that double marks are "traditionally associated with American printing practice (as in the Chicago style) and single marks with British practice (as in the Oxford and Cambridge styles), but there is much variation in practice; double marks are more often found in British texts before the 1950s, and are usual in handwriting." 

Scare Quotes

Scare quotes (also called shudder quotes) are quotation marks used around a word or phrase not to indicate a direct quotation but to suggest that the expression is somehow inappropriate or misleading—the equivalent of writing "supposed" or "so-called" in front of the word or phrase. 

Scare quotes are often used to express skepticism, disapproval, or derision. Writers are generally advised to use them sparingly.