Grammar AdviceGrammar, Advice
ServiceScape Incorporated
ServiceScape Incorporated
2017

Nine Rules You Need to Know About Quotation Marks


Whether you call it a quotation mark, quote mark, inverted comma, or talking mark, punctuation used to denote a direct quote when writing the English language comes with some confusing—therefore, often misunderstood—rules to follow. Much of the confusion is caused by opposing rules for quotation marks between the two styles of American English and British English. Whichever style used, rules related to the use of quotation marks when writing a sentence are some of the most commonly misunderstood rules in English. Basically—if you have a difficult time following them or remembering them, don't feel bad because you're definitely not alone.

Despite the confusion surrounding its form and usage, the quotation mark dates back to 15th-century manuscripts, when passages that were particularly important were pulled out of the main body and placed in the margins as a notation. Although not necessarily a direct quotation, these passages were distinguished from the rest of the words with identifying marks that would later evolve into our modern quotation marks. It wouldn't be until the 16th century, however, that printers would start using symbols that are similar to the quotation marks we use today, while the 17th century began using it to denote words spoken.

Double or single

The double quotation mark (") is used to open a quote and end a quote in American-style English. This form of quotation mark it is the oldest form, with the single quotation mark (') showing up around 1800 to denote a secondary level of quote, also known as a quote within a quote.

Continuing its often confusing variations among American and British writers, rules for punctuation in English writing are almost opposite each other when it comes to the use of quotes. For example, in America, a writer would use the double quotation mark for a primary-level quote, while using single quotation marks to denote a quote within a quote, or secondary level of usage. Writers across the UK, however, would do the exact opposite, using the single quotation mark to denote a primary quotation and the double quotation mark to denote secondary-level quotes, such as idioms or a quote within a quote.

Whether you are writing in American-style English or British-style English, the most obvious and most used purpose of a quotation mark is to denote when someone is speaking in a sentence. However, the problem is usually not found in the quotation mark's place in the sentence—rather, the confusion is often in where to place other punctuation in and around the quotation marks.

For this reason, we will cover the basic rules of quotation marks in both American and British styles of the language.

Rule 1 — Marking the primary quote

Americans use the double quotation mark (") to mark a primary quote, while the UK uses a singular quotation mark (') to do so. Again, the rules between the two styles are exactly opposite. For example, let's take a look at how two sentences with direct or primary-level quotes are written in American-style English.

American English
"Don't leave the house," my mother said.
Dr. Morgan stated that "a miracle needs to happen" for her to get back on her feet.

Now, let's take those same two quotes and look at them written in the British-style of English:

British English
'Don't leave the house', my mother said.
Dr. Morgan stated that 'a miracle needs to happen' for her to get back on her feet.

Rule 2 — Marking the secondary-level quote

In keeping with the theme of exactly opposite rules between American-style and British-style English, the secondary level of a quote is also handled differently. Americans use the single quotation mark (') to denote a secondary-level quote (otherwise known as a quote within a quote or nested quote), while the UK uses a double quote (") to do so.

American English
"He told me very plainly to 'pack up and leave,'" she said.
"When the officer yelled 'stop' loudly, I stopped immediately," claims Sarah.

As can be seen in both examples, for American-style English, when there is a quote within a quote, the double quotation mark is used as the first level or primary level of the quote, while the single quotation mark is used to denote the second level of the quote (or the nested quote).

Of course, as it goes, the opposite applies when writing in British-style English, as shown below.

British English
'He told me very plainly to "pack up and leave"', she said.
'When the officer yelled "stop" loudly, I stopped immediately', claims Sarah.

Rule 3 — Comma usage near quotes

When writing a quote in American or British English, a comma is generally used to separate the quote from other parts of the sentence. This happens when clauses like "he said" or "she said" (or something similar) are used as non-quoted words connected with quoted ones. In American-style English language writing, the comma is placed inside the quotes in these circumstances, unless separating the quote itself. In cases such as this, the comma would be inside of the first set of quotation marks and outside at the beginning of the second set.

American English
"It's a beautiful day," she said, "let's have a picnic."
They called and said, "We have some great news for you."

In British-style English, commas are placed outside of the quotation marks at all times, unless they are part of the quoted phrase. We've written the same sentences below, so you can see the difference between the two styles.

British English
'It's a beautiful day', she said, 'let's have a picnic'.
They called and said, 'We have some great news for you'.

Rule 4 — Period or full stop usage

The fourth rule is similar to the third rule, but applies to period or full stop usage when related to quotes. The same examples used in Rule 3 apply here, as well. American English puts the period or full stop inside of the quotes, while British-style English puts the period outside of the quotation marks.

Rule 5 — The question mark

Now that we've explained the differences between American-style English and British-style English when it comes to using commas or periods along with quotation marks, you can breathe easier. That's because all other punctuation besides the comma and period is handled the same way in both American-style English and British-style English.

Specifically, both styles put the question mark in the most logical place in the sentence. If the question is within the quote itself, the question mark should also be placed within the quotation marks. If the question is the entire sentence, which is partially quoted with perhaps an idiom or ironic statement, the question mark punctuates the end of the sentence—outside of the quotation marks used.

American English
Do you understand what it means to "be back at square one"?
"Do you really think they'll just give me 'a slap on the wrist' like they said they would?" she asked.

British English
Do you understand what it means to 'be back at square one'?
'Do you really think they'll just give me "a slap on the wrist" like they said they would?' she asked.

Rule 6 — Idioms and words used in a nonstandard way

As we briefly mentioned above, quotation marks are used in both styles of English to denote a term that is classified as an idiom, or is used in some non-standard way such as ironically or sarcastically. Note that in this rule, the same standards noted in Rules 3 and 4 apply. Americans put the period or full stop inside the quotes, while the UK does the opposite.

American English
Now I know why we use the term "break a leg."
I see that John is still spending a lot of quality time with his "friend."

British English
Now I know why we use the term 'break a leg'.
I see that John is still spending a lot of quality time with his 'friend'.

Rule 7 — Denoting shorter components of literature or other works

In both styles of English, quotation marks are used to denote shorter components of literature or other works, such as titles of short stories, poems, a chapter from a book, a song that is part of a larger composition, a scene from a play, etc. Here is a complete list of components that should be denoted with quotation marks.

  • Poems
  • Short stories
  • Essays
  • Songs
  • Chapter titles
  • Magazine or newspaper articles
  • Individual episodes of a television series
  • Page of a Web site
  • Scenes from a play or musical

Below are some examples of how this is done in both American-style and British-style English.

American English
The "Waltz of the Flowers" is my favorite part of the Nutcracker ballet.
Poe's famous short story, "The Tell-Tale Heart," demonstrates how the author uses images of death and bleakness to convey his version of Romanticism.

British English
The 'Waltz of the Flowers' is my favorite part of the Nutcracker ballet.
Poe's famous short story, 'The Tell-Tale Heart', demonstrates how the author uses images of death and bleakness to convey his version of Romanticism.

Rule 8 — Quoted material interrupted by non-quoted material.

When quoting a speaker or writer directly, we often include non-quoted words as well. In both American and British styles of English, the direct quote is separated from the non-quoted material with a comma. However, as shown in Rule 3, British English places the comma outside of the direct quote, while American English places it inside on the first set and outside of the second.

American English
"We're almost there," said Pat, "only a few more miles to go."
"I don't think science backs this theory," stated Dr. Williams. "You need to find scientific proof!"

British English
'We're almost there', said Pat, 'only a few more miles to go'.
'I don't think science backs this theory', stated Dr. Williams, 'you need to find scientific proof!'

Rule 9 — Quotes across paragraphs

In both styles of English language writing, when a quote spans multiple paragraphs, each paragraph begins with a quotation mark to denote the continuation of the quote. However, the closing quotation mark is only applied to the paragraph that contains the end of the quote.

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