Worry-free Writing: how to use quote marks

Worry-free writing: how to use quote marks
We all know that when we use someone’s exact words, whether spoken or written, we should use quote 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 quote marks.
In this post I’ll look more closely at:
  • What are quote marks for?
  • Should I use straight or curly quote marks?
  • Should I use single or double quote marks?
  • Where does the closing quote mark go in relation to other punctuation?
  • When not to use quote marks

What are quote marks for?

There are a few different reasons for using quote marks:
  • to indicate a direct quote from someone else’s spoken or written words. This is the most straightfoward use.


  • to distance the writer from the meaning of the word or phrase. Here, the quote 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!


It can help to imagine that the writer is saying so-called or supposed or allegedly before the word in quotes.
  • to identify some titles, such as book chapters, journal articles and songs.


  • to refer to a word as a word (I’ll explain!)​. 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.


Should I use straight or curly quote marks?

Curly quote marks are more correctly known as smart quotes and, conversely, straight quotes 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 quote marks is being taught 66 comes before 99, to remember the order of opening and closing curly quotes!
So, if we’re all taught to write smart quotes, why do we have straight quotes? 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 quote 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 quotes 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 quotes with smart quotes (or not) in Microsoft Word.

Should I use single or double quote 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 quote marks, and if there is a quote inside the quote, we use double quote marks.


In American English this is reversed, and the standard is to use double quotes, 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 quote mark go in relation to other punctuation?

The position of the closing quote 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 quote mark, as in example 2.


It’s a bit more complicated in American English. The rule is to put full stops and commas inside the closing quote mark, even if they’re not part of the quote. Semicolons and colons come after the closing quote 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 quote marks

Scare quotes

It can be tempting to use quote 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.


Does this make you feel safe and comfortable?
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 quote marks.

Displayed quotes

Quote 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 quote 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 fifty-word mark, although this can depend on the overall layout of the page.
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 useNew Hart’s Rules: The Oxford Style Guide 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 quote 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 in a comment below, or tweet me using the hashtag #WorryFreeWriting.

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