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Comma or Colon before a Quotation?

The Quick Answer
Quotation marks are used to show the actual words spoken or written. For example:
  • She said, "I love cake."
When the word that is used to introduce an idea which has been said or written, it is probably an example of reported speech. When this happens, you should not use quotation marks. For example:
  • She said that she loved cake.
  • She said that "she loved cake."
If you're unsure whether to precede a quotation with nothing, a comma, or a colon, then opt for a colon if the introduction is an independent clause (i.e., could stand alone as a single idea). For example:
  • She offered the following advice: "Don't drink the water."
  • (Here, She offered the following advice is an independent clause.)
If the introduction is not an independent clause, opt for a comma. For example:
  • She stated, "Don't drink the water."
  • (Here, She stated is not an independent clause.)

Quotation Marks to Show the Exact Words

Quotation marks can be used to show the actual words spoken or written. For example:
  • Anna looked up and said, "It's true. Her scatty dog ate the office key." 
  • (The words within the quotation marks are the exact words that Anna said.)

  • Her performance proved beyond all doubt that she was "simply the best."
  • (The words "simply the best" are a quote from a well-known song.)

  • The sign clearly states, "Thieves will be prosecuted."
  • (These are the actual words that are on the sign.)

Should You Use a Comma or a Colon before a Quotation?

When introducing a quotation with words like He said, She whispered, It stated, or He said the following, you have to make a decision on whether to follow the introduction with a comma, a colon, or nothing.

In creative writing especially, writers are free to choose to achieve their desired flow of text.

In more formal writing, however, punctuation is expected after an introduction for a quotation. The rules are quite lax. Below is some general guidance:

Use a Colon If the Introduction Is an Independent Clause

You should opt for a colon if the introduction is an independent clause, and you should start the quotation with a capital letter. For example:
  • The guides always gave the same advice: "Leave them alone, and they will leave you alone." 
  • (Here, The guides always gave the same advice is an independent clause.)

You Can Use a Colon If the Quotation Is an Independent Clause

You could opt for a colon if the quotation itself is an independent clause, especially if you intend to start it with a capital letter. For example:
  • The prisoner uttered: "Leave me alone." 
  • (You could also use a comma here.)

Use a Comma If the Introduction Is Not an Independent Clause

You should opt for a comma if the introduction is not an independent clause. For example:
  • She said, "tomorrow, definitely tomorrow."
  • (You should use a colon here as neither the introduction nor the quotation is an independent clause.)
  • Granddad looked at me over the top of his glasses and said, "I've seen it all and done it all. I just don't remember any of it."
  • (You could also use a colon here.)

You Can Only Use a Comma after a Quotation

There is only a choice between a comma and a colon when the quotation is being introduced. Only a comma can be used after a quotation. For example:
  • Paul looked over the hedge and shouted: "You can keep half of the strawberries you pick."
  • (Here, a colon has been selected because the quotation is an independent clause. A comma could have been used too.)
  • "You can keep half of the strawberries you pick," shouted Paul, looking over the hedge.
  • (In this example, a colon is not an option.)
In the last example, the comma after pick is shown inside the quotation mark. This is the most common convention in the US. Most writers in the UK would place the comma outside the quotation. This is a hotly discussed topic among grammarians. (The best advice is to adopt whatever practice your national newspapers follow.)

Read more about punctuation inside or outside quotation marks.

Using Nothing before a Quotation

Quite often quotations are used without introductions like He asked, She yelled, and They wrote. In those instances, you cannot use punctuation to introduce the quotation. For example:
  • I believe there really is "no place like home."
  • I believe there really is, "no place like home."

  • If this is the "best skiing resort in France," I would hate to see the worst.
  • If this is the, "best skiing resort in France," I would hate to see the worst.
Beware

Just for Actual Quotes

Quotation marks are not used for reported speech. (Reported speech is usually preceded by the word that.) Remember, only use quotation marks for actual quotes of speech or writing.
  • The secretary said, "The phones are dead."
  • The secretary said that the phones were dead.
  • (This is an example of reported speech.)
  • The secretary said that "the phones were dead."
  • (Do not use quotation marks for reported speech.)
  • Edmund said that "he was a good boy".
  • (This is reported speech. Edmund actually said, "I am a good boy." There should be no quotation marks.)
Top Tip

Use "Following" to Force a Colon

Many writers use the word following to create an independent clause in order to justify a colon. For example:
  • She said the following: "I hate the boss. I hate the business. See you, well, never."
  • (With this version, no one can contest the colon.)
  • She said: "I hate the boss. I hate the business. See you, well, never." (With this version, a comma could be used.)

It's Not a Hard and Fast Rule

Many writers do not adhere to the guidelines regarding the use of commas and colons with quotations. Nowadays, it is acceptable to introduce a quotation with a comma, a colon, or nothing. In modern writing, the choice of punctuation depends largely on the desired flow of the text (i.e., how much the writer wants the reader to pause).

The strongest rule is the following one: Use a colon after an introduction that is an indepedent clause.