Comma or Colon before a Quotation?
The Quick AnswerQuotation marks are used to show the actual words spoken or written. For example:
- She said, "I love cake."
- She said that she loved cake.
- She said that "she loved cake."
- She offered the following advice: "Don't drink the water." (Here, She offered the following advice is an independent clause.)
- She stated, "Don't drink the water." (Here, She stated is not an independent clause.)
Quotation Marks to Show the Exact WordsQuotation 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 ClauseYou 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 ClauseYou 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 ClauseYou 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 QuotationThere 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.)
Read more about punctuation inside or outside quotation marks.
Using Nothing before a QuotationQuite 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.
Just for Actual QuotesQuotation 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.)
Use "Following" to Force a ColonMany 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 RuleMany 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.
See Also...Using commas (a summary) Take our commas test Three dots (ellipsis) in quotation (speech) marks Punctuation inside or outside quotation (speech) marks? (the US and UK conventions)
Quotation (speech) marks for ships, plays, books, etc. Double or single quotation (speech) marks? Quotation (speech) marks meaning alleged or so-called