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Using Quotation Marks (Grammar and Punctuation)

The Quick Answer
This page offers an explanation on the correct use of quotation marks and gives examples of quotation marks used in sentences.

Quotation marks (or speech marks as they're also called) are used:
  • To show the exact words spoken or written.
  • For the names of things like ships, books, and plays.
  • To express the idea of alleged or so-called.
The three big questions with quotation marks are:
  • What punctuation should I use before my quotation marks?
  • (Answer: A comma, a colon, or nothing. It's your choice.)
  • Where should I put the punctuation that follows my quotation marks, i.e., inside or outside?
  • (Answer: It depends what punctuation mark you're talking about and whether you're following US or UK conventions. More below.)
  • Should I use double or single quotation marks?
  • (Answer: There's a lot of leniency on this, but it's common to start with doubles and then use singles only when you need to use quotation marks within those doubles. More below.)

Rules for Using Quotation Marks

Below are the rules for using quotation marks and the placement of punctuation with quotation marks.

Using Quotation Marks for the Names of Ships, Plays, Books, etc.

Quotation marks (or speech marks as they're also called) can be used for the names of books, plays, films, articles, ships, aircraft, houses, and hotels.

You do not have to use quotation marks for the names of these things, but you can if you think they highlight the name in a way that gives the required emphasis or group the name in a way that gives the sentence more clarity. For example:
  • When the "Herald of Free Enterprise" left the port with her bow-door open, the sea flooded her decks almost instantly. Within minutes, she was lying on her side in shallow water.
  • In the City of Westminster in central London, "The Savoy" is the place to stay – if money is no object.
Read more about speech marks for ships, plays, books, etc.

Quotation Marks to Denote Alleged or So-called

You can use quotation marks to denote so-called or alleged, or to show that a word is not being used in its literal sense. For example:
  • When the boss left, Peter's "mentor" took off his uniform and rushed back to the pub.
  • (so-called mentor)
  • Oh no, I've dropped another. These eggs "know" when you're about to crack them.
  • (The eggs don't know. Here, the speech marks show that know is not being used in its literal sense.)
Note: Do not use the words so-called or alleged and quotation marks that is effectively saying the same thing twice. For example:
  • When the boss left, Peter's so-called "mentor" took off his uniform and rushed back to the pub.
Quotation marks are not used for emphasis. For example:
  • We sell "fresh" fish.
  • (This will be read as: "We sell so-called fresh fish.")
Read more about quotation marks to denote alleged or so-called

The Punctuation before Quotations

Before we talk about your choice of punctuation before a quotation, it is worth re-iterating that quotation marks are only used to show the exact words spoken or written. For example:
  • This morning, Alan said, "I like toast."
  • (These are the exact words spoken by Alan.)
Often, people describe the idea in a quote without using the actual words. (More often than not, it will be preceded by the word that.) This is called reported speech. Quotation marks should not be used with reported speech. For example:
  • This morning, Alan said that he liked toast.
  • (This is an example of reported speech, which is why no quotation marks have been used.)
  • This morning, Alan said that "he liked toast."
  • (As these are not the actual words Alan said, there should be no quotation marks. Remember, Alan said, "I like toast." This example is describing the idea he said. It is not using his exact words.)
One of the big issues with writing quotations is the preceding punctuation. In other words, when you introduce a quotation with words like He said, She whispered, or He wrote, should this introduction be followed by a comma, a colon, or nothing? There is no strict ruling on this. You can use whichever one of those three options you like. This allows you to control the desired flow of text. If you don't want to control the desired flow of text and you'd like a guideline, then try this: Use a comma for short quotations of fewer than seven words, and use a colon for longer quotations. For example:
  • This morning, Alan said, "I like toast."
  • (A three-word quote – comma used)
  • This morning, Alan said: "I like toast with the crusts removed."
  • (A seven-word quote – colon used)
This is just a helpful guideline not a rule.

Read more about colons or commas before quotations

Punctuation – Inside or Outside Quotation Marks?

The rules governing whether to place punctuation inside or outside quotation marks are complicated. The quick summary is:

Semicolons and colons go outside. For example:
  • This theory is meant to explain all the happenings on the "Marie Celeste"; however, it does not address the absence of every single member of the crew.
  • Sir, there are two reasons why they are calling you "a traitorous scumbag": you are a traitor, and you are a scumbag.
Exclamation marks and question marks are placed according to logic. For example:
  • She shouted, "Get out!"
  • (The quote is the exclamatory sentence.)
  • He actually said "please"!
  • (The whole sentence (not the quote) is the exclamatory sentence.)
  • He said, "Can I leave?"
  • (The quote is the question.)
  • Did you say "I must leave"?
  • (The quote is not a question, but the whole sentence is.)
Commas and periods/full stops go inside in the US and outside in the UK. For example:
  • It was heavier than the "Spruce Goose." ()
  • It was heavier than the "Spruce Goose". ()
  • In this game, you cannot say the words "and," "the," and "is." ()
  • In this game, you cannot say the words "and", "the" and "is". ()
  • (Note: the comma before and disappears in the UK version too.)
There is a quirk with periods/full stops. If the comma or period/full stop can be claimed as part of the original quote, then it must appear inside.

Read more about punctuation with speech marks

Using Double or Single Quotation Marks?

When quoting written or spoken words, your readers will expect you to use double quotation marks (like these "hello") in the first instance. If you then need to use quotation marks for any other reason within that quotation, that's when you start using single quotation marks (like these 'hello'). For example:
  • The website states: " After 30 years, the 'Mary Rose' now has a permanent home in her new, state-of-the-art museum. "
  • (The "Mary Rose" was a warship of the English Tudor navy of King Henry VIII.)
  • She said: "I don't need 'friends' like you."
  • (Here, friends is within speech marks to convey the idea of so-called friends, which would have been expressed with voice tone.)
This is not a hard and fast rule. You can, for style purposes, do it the other way around, i.e., start with singles and then nest doubles within them. You can even nest doubles within doubles or singles within singles. Whatever style you choose though, you should be consistent throughout your document (and even consistent throughout your company). If you use singles and doubles at the same level, you are running the risk of looking like a writer who is not very meticulous.

Read more about using double speech marks (") and single speech marks (')

Ellipsis within Quotation Marks

You can use three dots (called ellipsis) to show that you have omitted part of a quotation. For example:
  • Original: " I'm never going to be famous. My name will never be writ large on the roster of Those Who Do Things. I don't do anything. Not one single thing. I used to bite my nails, but I don't even do that anymore." (Dorothy Parker, 1893-1967)
  • With ellipsis: "I'm never going to be famous...I don't do anything...I used to bite my nails, but I don't even do that anymore." (Dorothy Parker, 1893-1967)
Note: Quite often, the ellipsis is placed between square brackets.

Read more about three dots (ellipsis) within speech marks
Interactive Test

Take the test on using quotation marks.