Quotation marks are perhaps the trickiest in the world of punctuation. They have their own set of rules, and those rules bend and twist, depending on the context. We don't just use them for speech either.
They have their place when citing articles, poems, and songs too. Assessing how to use quotation marks is like taking a big, messy bite out of a gooey cinnamon bun. Sounds wonderful, right? Let's get to it.
Maybe you're writing a research paper and you need to quote a source. Or, perhaps you're writing an article about the Gettysburg Address, and you'd like to quote Abraham Lincoln.
Even in the day to day, we might need to use quotes when we're texting our friends about last night's date. In any of these cases, you'll need to consider your use of quotation marks (" ") or other ways to quote someone.
Quite simply, you can just surround the quoted text with quotation marks. Any words that aren't your own should be inside the quotation marks:
"Four score and seven years ago," Lincoln famously began, "our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal."
Let's take a look at some of the other different ways to approach quotations.
If you're diving deeply into a long paper on the likes of Abraham Lincoln, there may come a time when you have to quote a large block of someone else's words. A block quote is generally accepted as text with 40 or more words.
When the time comes to quote more than a line or two, it's important to start a new line and introduce the block quote. You'll want to indent it 0.5 inches on a standard letter size sheet of paper. And here's the most important point. These are one of the rare occasions where quotation marks are not required. Here's an example:
It's not advisable to pick up a candle from the local Dollar Store and burn it in your home. As Ferguson (2018) explained:
Most of the candles we purchase are loaded with harmful toxins. While we think we're releasing comfort and joy into the home, we're actually releasing cancer-causing carcinogens into the lungs of our loved ones. Sure, it's helpful to look out for soy-based candles with cotton wicks, but that's not enough. We also have to check and see what sort of chemicals were used to create those scents we love. (p.84)
You never want to use too many block quotes. They'll bulk up your essay, which is supposed to be composed of your thoughts, backed up by sound reasoning. But, when longer quotes are particularly striking or powerful, check with the appropriate style guide and enjoy adding solid support for your essay.
With shorter quotations, you have your choice. You can use the standard construct that looks something like this:
According to Ferguson, "Candles will be the death of us all."
Or, you can use a construct that merges standard quotes and block quotes. It looks something like this:
In her dissertation Candles or Cancer, Ferguson neatly summarizes her findings: "We've been taught to believe cigarettes will kill us, based on the carcinogens we inhale. But no one ever lectured us on the harmful effects of candles."
This is an example of a run-in quote. It's important enough to be offset with a colon, but not long enough to warrant a block quote. The quoted words are still surrounded by quotation marks.
Next, let's explore single quotation marks. These little guys are reserved for a quote within a quote. Sounds tricky, right? Fear not.
Let's say you're reading one of your favorite novels and the main character is quoting something someone said to her. In that case, you might read this:
Deidre stormed into my kitchen and said, "Boy, do I have a story for you!"
"What happened?" I asked with exasperation.
"I just bumped into Mr. Clooney down in the square and you won't believe what the old bugger said to me!"
"Good God, Deidre, spit it out already."
"I'm minding my own business and he pulls up beside me and says, 'I heard you and Sean broke up.'"
Normal quotes are required because the main character is still speaking, but they're quoting someone else's words. On paper, it simply requires a singular quote to indicate they're still speaking but it's not their words. Then, finish things off as we normally would with end quotes.
Have you ever noticed that some titles are italicized while others are placed in quotation marks? For example, our favorite book titles, magazines, newspaper articles, and movie titles are all singled out in their own way, sometimes with italics and sometimes with quotes. But, how do we know which gets what? Here are the short and fast rules to live by:
Shorter works like singular newspaper or magazine articles, poems, and songs should be in quotes.
Longer works like newspapers, magazines, books, albums, and movies should be italicized.
So, we might see Robert Frost's famous poem, "The Road Less Traveled" in quotes, while J.K. Rowling's masterpiece, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, should be italicized. John Mayer's tune, "Slow Dancing in a Burning Room" will require quotes while Tom Cruise's film, Mission Impossible: Fallout will be italicized.
Just remember this is the "short and fast" set of rules. Typically, we're bound to certain style guides when we write. So, the Chicago Manual of Style may have a different preference regarding quotation marks vs. italics than, say, The Associated Press (AP) Stylebook. Here are some sources from around the web that go into greater detail:
AP Style Guide: Many newspapers and magazines follow AP Style.
APA Style Guide: This is the guide used by the American Psychological Association, followed by many people in the sciences.
Chicago Manual of Style: This style is most commonly used in business and history.
MLA Style Manual: The guide by the Modern Language Association of America is used commonly in academics and the humanities.
Finally, let's discuss quotation marks used to emphasize a word or phrase. They may be used to express sarcasm or single out a technical or uncommon term.
Let's say Natalie and Mike hang out a couple of times a week to watch their favorite TV show. Natalie's friends suspect something more is brewing between the two. The conversation might go something like this:
Kendra: What are you doing tonight?
Natalie: I'm going over to Mike's to watch Lost.
Kendra: Yeah right.
Kendra: Nothing. You just seem to be over there to "watch Lost" an awful lot.
In this case, Kendra doesn't believe that Natalie and Mike are actually watching Lost together. She is implying by the use of her quotation marks that the two of them are actually doing something else.
Quotation marks might also be used when something technical is being discussed. You'll see them used the first time the technical or uncommon term is introduced, and then not again. Don't use quotation marks around technical terms that are commonly known. Here are two examples:
We're big fans of "parallax." We like to offer a scrolling web design that allows users to view our page like a story that's unfolding. Now that we're parallax pros, we'll never go back to a generic site design.
Insert the new reed into the "chanter" on the bagpipes. You'll want to gauge its level of ease by sampling a few notes directly on the chanter before you reinsert it into the bag.
When you use a quote, you'll put it into some sort of context so it's not standing alone. Since this is the case, we need to talk about punctuation.
Simply put, punctuation that comes before the beginning of the quote goes outside of the quotation marks, and any punctuation that comes at the end of the quote stays inside the marks. Here's an example:
Then he said, "How would you like to get some ice cream after the movie?"
In this sentence, there is a lead-in to the quote. Notice that, at the end of the lead-in, before the quote begins, there's a comma. At the end of the quote, still inside the quotation marks, is the question mark.
Let's look at something more complex:
"I would love to," I replied, "but I really ought to go home."
In this sentence, the quote comes at the beginning. If the quote ends with a period like this one, use a comma inside the quotation marks, and then continue the sentence outside. If the quote ends with a question mark or an exclamation point, use it inside, and then continue the sentence outside the quotation marks.
"Where are you going?" she asked."I love it!" he exclaimed.
"Oh," he said sadly and turned to walk away.
Finally, note that, if your quoted text is a complete sentence (or multiple sentences), capitalize the first letter of the sentence(s) regardless of where you put the quote within the larger sentence.
She said, "We went to the movies."
Hopefully, this clears up any confusion about how to use quotation marks. It's the kind of thing that becomes second nature with practice. Some day, you won't even think about it; you'll just know where to punctuate around quotes.