Using a Colon before a Quotation

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You are safe to make the decision on whether to use a colon, a comma, or nothing after an introduction (e.g., He said, She shouted) before a quotation.

If you're still unsure which to use, follow this guideline:
  • Use a colon before a quotation of more than 6 words.
  • Use a comma before a quotation of 6 words or fewer.

Using a Colon before a Quotation

Writers often ask whether they should use a comma, a colon, or nothing when introducing a quotation.

Quotations are often introduced with terms like He said, She whispered, and They shouted. Such an introduction can be followed by a comma or a colon to separate it from the quotation, or it can be followed by nothing (i.e., just a space followed by the first quotation mark).

There is a lot of leniency on this, especially in creative writing, and writers should choose the punctuation that gives them their desired flow of text.

That said, there is a useful guideline which states you should use a colon when introducing a quotation of more than 6 words, and a comma for a shorter quotation.

This guideline removes the need to think about which punctuation to use. It's not a grammar rule. It's just a widely accepted style.

Examples:
  • The minister shouted: "Do not worry. The next time I stand up here, I will have answers to these questions."
  • The largest of the aliens repeatedly insisted: "We come in peace. Take me to your leader."
  • The referee yelled: "not on my pitch...off!"
  • (This quotation only has five words. Therefore, under the guideline, it should be preceded by a comma.)
    (Remember, this is not wrong grammatically, but it doesn't follow the guideline explained on this page.)
  • The priestess whispered: "Take them to the pit."
  • (This quotation only has five words. Therefore, under the guideline, it should be preceded by a comma.)

Do Not Use Quotation Marks for Reported Speech

Only use quotation marks to record the actual words previously said or written. For example:
  • Johnny said, "I am a good boy."
  • (I am a good boy are the words Johnny actually said.)
  • Johnny said that "he was a good boy."
  • (This is not a quotation. We know Johnny said I am a good boy. This is an example of reported speech. We are reporting what he meant as opposed to quoting exactly what he said. With reported speech, there is no punctuation after the introduction (which is often followed with that), and there should be no quotation marks.)
  • Johnny said that he was a good boy.
  • (This is the correct way to write reported speech.)
You can, however, take extracts from someone's quote. For example:
  • Johnny said that he was a "good boy".
  • (In this example, the quotation marks are correct. There must be no punctuation before the quotation because there is no introduction (i.e., the quotation is not preceded immediately by a term like He said, She whispered, or They shouted.)

You're in Control. Let Your Desired Flow of Text Determine Which Punctuation to Use before a Quotation

You can use a colon, a comma, or nothing after an introduction for a quotation. Choose the one that gives you your desired flow of text. If you're unsure which to use, follow the guideline on this page. That's why it's useful.

Read more about using a comma or a colon before a quotation.


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