Friday, April 19, 2013

GrammatiCats: Quotation Marks

I wasn't actually going to do a post about quotation marks.  Because who doesn't know how to use quotes, right?

As it turns out, me.  I was writing the Linking Adverbs post when I realized that I didn't know whether to use single or double quotes when I was referencing a word (such as "however"), and although I sincerely didn't want to have a comma inside the quotes, I wasn't sure whether that was a universal grammatical dictate, or simply an MLA-mandated habit from my school years.

So now we have this post.  By all means, help me to remediate myself!

N.B.:  All of the following advice concerns American usage.  Quotation practices are considerably different in other English-speaking parts of the world.

Pinkie Rating: 3

First of all, I'm going into this with the assumption that you guys are already pretty good with the ol' double quotes.

1.  Dialogue and Other Direct Quotations

When writing a quotation:
  • punctuation goes inside the end-quote when it's a period, a comma, or a part of the quoted material.  (In this case, the exclamation point comes directly from Officer Oreo, not the writer, so it belongs inside the quotation.)
  • when the quotation ends with terminal punctuation (in other words, punctuation that's used to end a sentence - period, question mark, exclamation point) but the sentence itself continues, no capitalization is needed.  In this case, we use "said" with a lower-case S, just as we would if Officer Oreo's sentence had ended with a comma.
2. Informal, Technical, or Unfamiliar Terms

Quotation marks are also a good way to acknowledge words or phrases that your reader might not know, especially the first time you use them.

You can see here how we're not actually quoting anyone, but we still put the punctuation inside the quotation marks.  I think of this as the "underwear goes inside the pants" dictum, and it's the same as bullet point # 1 above: periods and commas go inside punctuation marks.

(This was the rule I especially despised in the Linking Adverbs post, and one which I have decided to partially excuse myself from.  Half of this entire blog series has to do with where commas go, and it doesn't make sense to invite confusion by saying "however," instead of "however",.  I encourage you likewise not to follow any rule off a cliff.  Wear your underwear outside your pants when that's how fashion moves you.)

3.  Air Quotes and Scare Quotes

Also known as ironic, humorous, or sarcastic usage.  You know that thing, when you're talking to somebody out in the real world and they mime quotation marks with their fingers?  Yeah, these are those, but on paper.  And less obnoxious.  We use these to make it clear that the word or phrase inside the quote shouldn't be taken literally or seriously.  For example: fresh fish can be delicious, but stay away from anything advertised as "fresh" fish, and if you see any fresh "fish"... snap a picture and back away slowly.

All the same punctuation rules apply here.

4.  Discussion of Words Themselves

You know, sometimes you're trying to talk about a word, rather than using the word itself.  Quotation marks save the day once again!

Italics also do this job pretty well, but we seem not to use them as often.  (For one thing, you don't have to worry about quotes getting blitzed in a formatting error.)  Either way works.

5.  Titles of Short Works

This includes songs, poems, short stories, news articles, and so on.  (A handy rule of thumb for "does it count as 'short'?" is "does it have subsections?"  Books, albums, plays, and movies, for example, all have individual chapters, scenes, songs, and other sub-divisions, so they don't count as short works.)

Notice here how the question mark isn't part of the song title, so it goes outside the quotation marks.  Handy-dandy!

Last question, then:

When do you use single quotes?

Well, America is the home of the Hummer, the McMansion, and here in my neck of the woods, the Boomstick, so it should come as no surprise that we like our punctuation equally supersized.  For us, double quotation marks are the norm.  

As a result, most of us only use single quotation marks when we have a quotation within a quotation.

This is the language equivalent of writing [3x - 2(5 + 3y)]: when you're nesting one expression inside another, marking the interior expression differently helps to keep the reader from getting lost.  All of the same punctuation rules apply here: since the period ends both the inner quotation and the outer quotation, it goes inside both.  (If you want to see how things would work if it didn't, go back to the "does it count as short" sentence above.)

There are other uses for single quotes, but most of them apply only when you're writing for a particular style or discipline.  (If you're doing a news article, for example, any quotations in the headline will be enclosed with single quotes.) 

Last thought for the day: technically, "quote" is a verb, as in "Can I quote you on that?"  The thing the person actually says is a "quotation," and it is enclosed within "quotation marks."

As you can see, I have ignored that from beginning to end in this blog post, but I think it's worth mentioning.  Because it's only when you know how to hold your pinkie out ramrod-straight that you are truly free to curl it inward again.

Further Reading:

Quotation Marks - a great piece that goes into more detail on punctuating dialogue
Single vs Double Quotation Marks - excellent little look at the differences in American and British usage
Grammar Girl: Quotation Marks with Periods and Commas - she teaches your punctuation how to play nicely!
Quotation Marks: When to Use Single or Double Quotation Marks - really good examples showing how to nest single and double quotes
Titles Using Italics and Quotation Marks - a good, specific breakdown of the whole "short vs. long" issue

Many thanks to today's GrammatiCats!

1. Rocket and Baxter*, courtesy of Sally Hamilton and A. Lee Martinez
2. This may or may not be a cat, but if it is, it's a feral cat.  Courtesy of Dr. C
3. Shelter kitty, courtesy of Dr. C.  (Check him out at the Irving Animal Cares Campus!)
4. Jeremiah, Little Bit, and Ezekiel, courtesy of Gary
5. Our own fitness-minded Peaches
5. Shelter kitty, courtesy of Dr. C!

*honorary cat

(Does your kitty want to be a GrammatiCat?  Sign up here!)


  1. This is the second post I've seen on quotations and you covered it a bit more thorough. Thanks.

    1. Thank YOU - I reckon you must have seen just about every A-to-Z-er there is, so that means quite a lot!

  2. That photo quote looks good to me. Outside double quotes, inside single quotes. You covered the subject very well. One can never get enough grammer posts.

    Silvia @ Silvia Writes

    1. Haha, oh, we probably can, but that's no reason to stop writing them. Thanks so much for stopping by - I'll look forward to returning the favor!

  3. Noooo poor Rags :( I hope he broke loose! I have that odd avoidance sometimes of ending sentences with quotation marks. You may notice this is a trend with me lol I am pretty good with dialogue, but when it comes to quotations being used — mid-sentence — around a comma, I always second guess myself.

    Great explanations as usual!