quotation marks (inverted commas)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

quotation marks
"Conversation is the stuff of life," says Richard Lederer, "and quotation marks add life to writing. They allow writers to transmit conversation to readers over a long distance" (Comma Sense, 2005). (Getty Images)


Quotation marks are punctuation marks (curly or "straight") used primarily 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:

"Salutations are greetings," said the voice. "When I say 'salutations,' it's just my fancy way of saying hello or good morning."
(E.B. White, Charlotte's Web, 1952)

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.

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:

From the Latin, "how many"

Examples and Observations

  • "Sometimes I lie awake at night, and I ask, 'Where have I gone wrong?'
    Then a voice says to me, 'This is going to take more than one night.'"
    (Charles M. Schulz, Charlie Brown in "Peanuts")
  • British Boy Scout commissioner Roland Philipps suggested that a youngster's daily good turn might "consist in moving a piece of banana peel from the pavement."
  • "'Where's Papa going with that ax?' said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast."
    (E.B. White, Charlotte's Web, 1952)
  • "You see things; and you say, 'Why?' But I dream things that never were; and I say, 'Why not?'"
    (George Bernard Shaw, Back to Methuselah)
  • Double Marks and Single Marks
    "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."
    (Robert E. Allen, "Quotation Marks." The Oxford Companion to the English Language, 1992)
  • Quotation Marks With Slang
    "If you use a colloquialism or a slang word or phrase, simply use it; do not draw attention to it by enclosing it in quotation marks."
    (William Strunk and E.B. White, The Elements of Style)
  • Using Ellipsis Points . . .
    "[If] omitting material from the original sentence or sentences leaves a quotation that appears to be a sentence or a series of sentences, you must use ellipsis points, or three spaced periods, to indicate that your quotation does not completely reproduce the original."
    (MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers, 2009)
  • Phantom Words
    "However plausible they may seem, don't ascribe words to speakers that they didn't exactly say. For instance, Sen. Vladimir Blowhard says, 'Most of us politicians have a serious problem with that issue.' The quotation has him say, 'WE have a serious problem with that issue.' The fact is that the speaker never said 'we.' Rephrasing is easy: Blowhard said that politicians like himself 'had a serious problem with that issue.'"
    (Rene J. Cappon, The Associated Press Guide to Punctuation. Basic Books, 2003)
  • The Evolution of Quotation Marks
    - "At the beginning of the 18th century English printers transformed the comma marks . . . into a new punctuation symbol which we may properly call 'quotation marks.' . . . Quotation marks were gradually accepted during the first half of the 18th century, and were used with increasing frequency to indicate quotations in English books in the second half of the century, although there are important exceptions. . . .

    "Further refinements were produced as English printers exploited the existence of the variant forms of double-comma and single-comma marks."
    (M.B. Parkes, Pause and Effect: An Introduction to the History of Punctuation. Univ. of California Press, 1993)

    - "Conventions for marking direct speech and quoted material finally stabilized in the Victorian period in something close to their current form (though with what are now established differences between American and British conventions of punctuation still unsettled). . . . Even in the late 18th century a number of different indicators for quoted material were still being used, the most common of which was to include quotation marks not only at the beginning of a quoted passage, but also at the beginning of each subsequent line for as long as the quotation extended. In the early Victorian period, it had become conventional to mark quotations with only an open quotation mark at the beginning of a passage and a closed quotation mark at the end--though it remained acceptable to use either single or double quotation marks."
    (The Broadview Anthology of British Literature: The Victorian Era. Broadview Press, 2006)

    Pronunciation: kwo-TAY-shun marks