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Worry-free Writing: how to use quotation marks

Worry-free writing: how to use quote marks
There’s a bit more to how to use quotation marks than you might think. We all know that when we use someone’s exact words, whether spoken or written, we should use quotation marks to show this. (You did know that, right?)
 
But, like many things related to language and punctuation, it’s a bit more complicated than that!
 
There are things we need to consider, including who we are writing for, nearby punctuation, and the extent of the quote, which all influence the type and position of our quotation marks.
 
In this post I’ll look more closely at:

What are quotation marks for?

There are four common reasons for using quotation marks.

1 To indicate a direct quote from someone else’s spoken or written words 

This is the most straightfoward use. We use the quotation marks to enclose a direct quote. This indicates that the words inside the quotation marks are an exact retelling of what was said or written.

When asked about quote marks, Denise said 'punctuation can be tricky'. 'Punctuation can be tricky' is inside quote marks.

2 To distance the writer from the meaning of the word or phrase 

Here, the quotation marks indicate that the writer doesn’t agree with the sentiment of the word or phrase. In the example, which is a subheading from today’s Guardian online, the dream team is Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Jacob Rees-Mogg. I’ll leave it to you to decide whether or not they are your dream team!

Claim of 'opening quote mark' dream team 'closing quote mark' challenge to Theresa May's leadership over custom union membership
It can help to imagine that the writer is saying so-called or supposed or allegedly before the word inside the quotation marks.

3 To identify some titles, such as book chapters, journal articles and songs

Whether a title should be in quotation marks or italic is not a hard and fast rule and can vary depending on the style guide you use.

Convention dictates that song titles, book chapters and journal articles are put in quotation marks in many of the style guides I work with, including the New Oxford Style Manual.

One of my favourite 80s songs is 'opening quote mark' The Killing Moon 'closing quote mark by Echo and the Bunnymen

4 To refer to a word as a word

This is usually when we are talking about language, for example, in the education textbooks I work on. It’s worth noting that it’s probably more common to use italics in this situation, and I must admit that is my preference, as I think it gives a cleaner look.

To promote gender neutrality, use 'they' rather than 'he' or 'she' in your writing. THe words they, he and she are all in quote marks.

Should I use straight or curly quotation marks?

Curly quotation marks are more correctly known as smart quotes and, conversely, straight quotation marks are known as … yes, you guessed it … dumb quotes. Most editors will call these straight quotes, which I prefer as it’s less judgy!
 
My earliest memory of learning about quotation marks is being taught 66 comes before 99, to remember the order of opening and closing curly quotation marks!
 
So, if we’re all taught to write smart quotation marks, why do we have straight quotation marks? According to this website, it’s a hangover from the days of the typewriter, when they decided to use one mark for two purposes to save space.
 
The single and double prime symbols doubled up as the single and double quotation marks, and a world of confusion was born. 
 
You will recognise these prime symbols, as they are used to represent feet and inches and minutes and seconds. For example, if you are five feet and nine inches tall, you can write that as 5′ 9″. In a different context this could also be read as five minutes and nine seconds.
 
When used in this way, or in other mathematical or scientific contexts, prime symbols should NOT be replaced with smart quotes.
 
Changing straight quotation marks to smart quotes is one of the initial clean up jobs an editor will do when they start work on a file. You could save them time (and, perhaps, your money) by changing them yourself.

There is an option to automatically replace straight quotation marks with smart quotes (or not) in Microsoft Word.

Should I use single or double quotation marks?

This decision comes down to where you are in the world and what type of English you are writing. I’m in the UK, so let’s start there.
 
In British English, we use single quotation marks, and if there is a quote inside the quote, we use double quotation marks.
'Opening single quote mark' Do you know what 'opening double quote mark' laissez faire 'closing double quote mark' means? 'closing single quote mark' she asked.
 
In American English this is reversed, and the standard is to use double quotation marks, with singles for quotes within quotes.
 
Because nothing is ever straightforward, it is common to see this American style used in British newspapers.
 
There are many other types of English: Canadian, Australian, New Zealand, South African, Indian, etc. Each will have their own preferences and idiosyncrasies, so understand what type of English your audience will be used to reading, and punctuate your writing accordingly.

Whichever format you choose, as ever, the main thing to remember is to be consistent in applying it.

Where does the closing quotation mark go in relation to other punctuation?

The position of the closing quotation mark in relation to other punctuation can be a source of a lot of confusion, so let’s break it down.
 
In British English, punctuation only goes inside the closing quote mark if it is part of the quote itself, as in example 1, below. If not, it comes after the quotation mark, as in example 2.
Terminal punctuation goes inside the closing quote mark in British English
 
It’s a bit more complicated in American English. The rule is to put full stops and commas inside the closing quotation mark, even if they’re not part of the quote. Semicolons and colons come after the closing quotation mark, and question marks and exclamation marks follow the British convention of depending on whether or not they are part of the quote.

When not to use quotation marks

Scare quotes

It can be tempting to use quotation marks in your writing to draw attention to a word or phrase, but this is rarely necessary and will often have the opposite effect to what you intended.
Sign on an aiplaine reading "Please enjoy our safe and comfortable flight." 'Safe' and 'comfortable' are in quote marks.
 
If you’re tempted to do this, imagine saying the sentence out loud, making air quotes with your fingers as you do. Would you say it like that? No? Then leave out the quotation marks.

Displayed quotes

Quotation marks are not needed when your quote is being displayed. If an extract from a text is set separately as a graphic, it’s known as a pull quote and there is no need to enclose the text in quotation marks.
 
If you have a longer quote in your text, you may decide to set it as a block quote. Here, the text is broken off and the quotation starts on a new line. It is often styled differently, perhaps in smaller text and further indented. 
 
Most publishers will have guidelines for how long a quote should be before being set as a block quote, commonly around the 50-word mark, although this can depend on the overall layout of the page.

Related content

If you struggle with other aspects of punctuation, there are other posts in my Worry-free Writing series that can help you.

Further reading

If you’re interested in understanding the finer points of punctuation, I recommend The Penguin Guide to Punctuation as an excellent starting point.
Editors and other language professionals should use the reference book of their choice, appropriate to the English they work in.
 
I use the New Oxford Style Manual (which combines New Hart’s Rules and the New Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors) for British English, and The Chicago Manual of Style for American English.

Over to you!

What do you think? Has this helped you get a better picture of how to use quotation marks?
 
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this and any suggestions you might have for other topics to include in my Worry-free Writing series.
 
If there’s a grammar point you’re not clear on, or a punctuation mark you’re not sure about, drop me a line, or tweet me using the hashtag #WorryFreeWriting.
 
And to get my monthly newsletter about my latest blogs, podcast episodes or other resources, be sure to sign up for The Editor’s Note below.

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