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Quotes & Quotation Marks

Quotation marks are probably the most incorrectly used element of punctuation; students are often confused about when to use single or a double quote, how to use quotation marks to express irony, whether or not it is Ok to use quotes to identify a new term, and how to use quotation marks with direct quotes. The rules governing the use of quotation marks are specific; however, students don't usually sit down and read about how to use quotation marks properly. So good for you, for being here! In this module, students will learn the rules governing the use of quotation marks in the situations outlined below:

  • with direct and indirect quotes
  • for irony & emphasis
  • to identify new terms
  • to identify titles
  • in dialogue


Quotation Marks With Direct & Indirect Quotations

Short Quotes:

Quotation marks are important in an essay which uses sources as evidence.  Writers use quotation marks to signal the reader that the text within opeining and closing quotes is not the writer's original material. In an indirect quotation, when the writer paraphrases another person's words, quotation marks are not used, though it is important to provide a citation letting the reader know the source of the information.

Direct quote:

After finishing the entire sundae, she said, "And that's what I'm talking about!"

Indirect quote:

After she finished her chocolate sundae, she said that she wanted another one.

Block Quotes:

When the quoted material is longer than four lines of your own text, it must be offset and indented (the way the examples on this page are offset and indented); however, do not use quotation marks with an offset quote as the offsetting substitutes for the punctuation. Quotes within the quote still take punctuation marks, however. If you are writing an essay in MLA format, the quote should be double-spaced (in MLA format, double-spacing is maintained throughout the essay).

Using Other Punctuation With Quotation Marks:

Here is where things get tricky:  students often just guess where to put commas, periods, and question marks when they finish with a quote and move back to their own writing.  However, there are rules that govern the placement of other punctuation with quotation marks, and you may well be driving your English instructor up the wall if your commas are out of place.

Commas and periods after a quotation go INSIDE the closing quote:

"I was so tired that I fell asleep in the library," said Donna.

Mark Twain once said, "Nothing so needs reforming as other people's habits."

A comma should be used before a quote begins to separate a lead-in phrase from the quotation.  If the lead in is an independent clause, however, use a colon:

An analogy helps explain something complex by way of comparison with something that is easier to understand, for example, "Love is like a rose: it blooms and grows and creates joy; but it also has thorns."

For example, the author of the essay on the Novato Train Station might employ a statement Gertrude Stein made about Oakland: "There's no 'there' there."

A question mark or exclamation point goes inside the closing quote if the quote is a question or exclamation; if the sentence itself is a question or exclamation, place the punctuation outside the closing quote. Do not double up punctuation when using a question mark or exclamation point by adding in the usual comma or a period. Skip the additional punctuation:

"What in the world were you thinking of?" I asked.

What is the context for Twain's comment, "In the first place God made idiots. This was for practice. Then he made School Boards"?

When omitting words in a quotation, use ellipses (three periods with a space between each period; and a space before beginning the ellipses).  If the omitted material is after a complete sentence, keep the period then add the ellipses:

Walker . . . was picked up by the A's just three days before the regular season was to start.

The Sierra Nevada range is of greater elevation than the Rocky Mountains. . . . This and the coast range run nearly parallel with the shore of the Pacific. (Edwin Bryant, What I Saw in California)

Ellipses may also be used to indicate a pause or an unfinished thought:

"The details of my life are quite inconsequential. . . . Very well, where do I begin?" (Dr. Evil in Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery)

Capital letters:

Basically, stick with the actual text of the quoted material.  You do not need to change a letter to or from a capital to fit it into the structure of your sentence.  One exception would be when you begin a sentence with a quotation: here you would capitalize the first letter of the sentence.


Brackets are used within a quote when you need to change a word, for example, when you need to make the quote fit the grammatical structure of your own sentence.  Brackets are also used to indicate a single word omission, or the addition of words to clarify meaning:

In "Like a Fox," the 10-year-old protoganist repeatedly tries to break away from her parents and childhood.  She asks his mother to let her go alone to the lake to join her friends, to choose her own clothes, and to walk to school rather than ride with her dad. She argues that "nobody understands [her]" to anyone who will listen.

Scientist Gail Monroe said, "The future of stem cell research [see definition] is in doubt."

A Quote Within a Quote:

When quoting text that itself includes a quote, use single quotation marks to enclose the internal quote and distinguish it from the primary quote.

In his book Free From School, Rahul Alvarez takes a year off from school to pursue an education of his own design. At sixteen, however, he is sometimes taken advantage of by strangers. For example, he is cheated by a man pretending to be a conductor when he takes a bus for the first time: "We both got into the bus, I took a seat and he put my luggage on the overhead rack. 'Ticket,' he demanded. 'How much?' I asked. '25 rupees,' he replied. I handed over the amount to him." (Rahul Alvarez, Free From School)


Quotation Marks for Irony and Emphasis


Ever seen someone use air quotes?  People make air quotes when they want to express irony, as in "I just 'love' waking up at 6:00 am to catch a plane." Dr. Evil in the Austin Powers movies uses air quotes, but incorrectly, around familiar terms like "laser," and so does Joey in a classic episode of Friends (click here to see this bit on YouTube). Using quotes to express irony is tricky.  Often it is better to rely on the logic of the sentence to indicate the irony; quotes can be construed as a sign of the author's laziness or inability to indicate irony in language.  Neither of the sentences below needs quotation marks to make the irony clear because the logic reveals the irony.

Those telephone solicitors are so kind and thoughtful to call during dinner time.

I just love telephone solicitors.


Quotation marks may be used around a word  to indicate that a word is a slang term. In this case, one is calling attention to the fact that the term is slang.

She called me a "garden tool"; I had no idea what she meant, but my guess is that she wasn't being kind.


Most grammarians will tell you that using quotes to denote emphasis is incorrect, but people do it all the time.  Take a look at the following emphasis quotes taken from the hilarious Gallery of Misused Quotations:

You'll "love" our food! (menu in a diner in Hattiesburg, Mississippi)

Help Wanted. Must have cash register experience and be "willing to work." (Weiner World Restaurant, Pittsburgh, PA)

"Fresh" Fish (Byward Market, Ottawa, Ontario)

You must be "21" to enter this bar! (a fan's local bar)

"Parents" No candy sold on this aisle. (Weis Supermarket, PA)

It is probably best to avoid using quotes for emphasis in college writing.


Quotation Marks for Terms

Before computers took the place of typewriters, quotation marks were used around words and phrases meant to be read as words or terms rather than for their content.  Today, the use of italics is preferred.  New terms should be placed in italics the first time they appear; thereafter, the terms should appear as regular, unitalicized text.

The English word wimp, which means "to be timid or cowardly," comes from the Old English word for "wimple," which refers to the cloth women wrapped around their heads in medieval times.


Quotation Marks and Titles

Quotation marks are used to set off the titles of short works; italics (or an underline, when italics are not available) are used to identify longer works. A short work is a work within a work, such as an episode of a TV series, a chapter in a book, an article in a magazine, or a song or poem.  Longer works include books, full-length plays, full-length records (or cds), TV series, films, magazines and newspapers.  Works of art are also italicized.


Quotation Marks in Dialogue

There are a few important rules for using quotations marks in dialogue. 

  • The words of each speaker need to be enclosed in quotes
  • In quotes that go on for more than a paragraph, use a quote at the beginning, but not at the end of the paragraph until you reach the end of the quote, then include the closing quote.
  • Every time a new speaker talks, the writer must begin a new line.

Take a look at this dialogue from Jane Austen's novel, Pride and Prejudice:

“My dear Mr. Bennet,” said his lady to him one day, “have you heard that Netherfield Park is let at last?”

Mr. Bennet replied that he had not.

“But it is,” returned she; “for Mrs. Long has just been here, and she told me all about it.”

Mr. Bennet made no answer.

“Do you not want to know who has taken it?” cried his wife impatiently.

“You want to tell me, and I have no objection to hearing it.”

This was invitation enough.





1. direct & indirect quotes

2. irony & emphasis

3. terms

4. titles

5. dialogue


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