“Huh? What do you mean, ‘quotation marks’? What about them?” I looked off to my left at Julius, but he was being inscrutable. Cryptic. Sphinx-like. Nobody has a poker face like Julius.
He raised one finger in the air as if to say, “Give me a minute,” and took a deep swallow of his…well, let’s just say it was limeade. Adult limeade. Then, licking his lips, Julius said, “Next month. Your column. You’ve gotta talk about quotation marks.”
I sighed. Julius always thinks he’s an expert. “No. My writers—they’re doing expository writing. Nonfiction. No dialogue. They don’t need…”
“What, they never have to use a direct quotation?” Julius scoffed. “They don’t cite newspaper articles? They never make up an imaginary conversation to engage the reader?”
“Well, I wouldn’t say never,” I admitted.
“Exactly so. I’ve seen the work they put online. They use quotations a lot.” Julius thought it was important to wag his finger at me. “A lot, you get me? And about a third of the time, they’re doing it wrong.”
“You really think so?” Julius can be persuasive. Then again, he was still wagging his forefinger and staring at it, as if it was a digit he had never seen before. Maybe he was right, and maybe he was just a little tiddly.
But suddenly he was back in focus. “Yes, I really do. You need a lesson on quotation marks. And one other thing.”
“Pass the ‘limeade’; I need a refill.”
Quotation Marks: They’re Not Just for Fiction Any More
Quotation marks serve four purposes in written English:
- They show words that are directly captured from someone else’s written or spoken language. This is always done with a direct or implied reference to the original author of the words.
- They are used ironically to cite someone else’s phrasing while distancing the current author from endorsing that point of view. Indeed, these scare quotes (as they’re sometimes called) or ironic quotes are used to undermine the legitimacy of the original viewpoint. Example: Judge Malvolio T. Feral says he’s “proud to be a liberal,” but it’s hard to square that with his opinion favoring capital punishment for jaywalking.
- They are used to identify the titles of smaller written or composed pieces: songs, short stories, poems, chapter titles, and article names.
- They are used to specify words considered as objects rather than their lexical meaning. Example: “And” and “or” are the two most common conjunctions in English, with “so” and “nor” used less often.
Opening a quotation
When beginning a sentence with introductory non-quoted text that identifies the speaker, the writer will usually put a comma before beginning a direct quotation, and the first word of the quotation will be capitalized. Example: Dr. Evans said, “That swelling on the side of your big toe is the start of a bunion.”
Less commonly, the comma may be omitted when the writer doesn’t use “said” (or a synonym) as a transition element, but rather continues the flow of the sentence directly into the quotation; in such cases, the first word of the quotation is usually not capitalized. Example: In Gideon v. Wainwright, Justice Black wrote for a unanimous Supreme Court that “in our adversary system of criminal justice, any person haled into court, who is too poor to hire a lawyer, cannot be assured a fair trial unless counsel is provided for him.”
Some writers will use a colon rather than a comma to lead into a quotation. Although many writers believe this is permitted only to introduce long quotations, it’s a style choice that can be adapted to almost any situation. Example: There’s a story often told about President Coolidge, who never was a talkative man. Once, a young woman was seated next to Silent Cal at a dinner party, and she told him she had made a bet that she could get the president to say at least three words. Coolidge replied: “You lose.”
Closing a quotation
Ending a direct quotation can also be tricky. As a general rule, tuck commas, exclamation points, and periods inside of the closing quotation mark. Semicolons and dashes usually are left outside.
Question marks must be placed according to the sense of the passage. If the question is part of the quoted material, then the question mark should go inside the closing quotation mark. Example: Timmy asked, “Why is the policeman taking Daddy away?” On the other hand, if the question is about the quoted material, then the question mark will follow the closing quotation mark. Example: Can you tell me who said, “A clear conscience is usually the sign of a bad memory”?
“A Person Who Never Made a Mistake Never Tried Anything New”
Now that you have mastered the basic rules of using quotation marks, let’s look at the usage errors that I’ve seen most frequently:
- Nested quotations. If a quotation itself contains quoted material, then the internal quotation is marked off with single quotes (similar to forward and backward apostrophes) and the external quotation uses standard double quotes. Example: Jessica said, “I got chills in English class today when our teacher read the Langston Hughes poem ‘Harlem’ out loud—you know, ‘What happens to a dream deferred?’ and so on.” If there are additional levels of nested quotations (don’t laugh; it happens), then the writer will alternate double and single quotation marks as needed, always using double quotes at the outermost level.
- Using single quotation marks in headlines, titles, and subheadings. You may have noticed that newspapers (and some magazines) use single quotation marks in heading positions, even though they use standard double quotes in the body of their text. I have been told this tradition arose because newspapers have such limited space available for headlines, and double quotation marks could easily blur into one symbol in the days before electronic typesetting. Those restrictions no longer apply, but newspapers continue to use the format for the sake of tradition. For Internet content, please use standard double quotation marks, even in titles and headlines.
- Quotations extending across multiple paragraphs. Although it’s common for a lengthy quotation to last several paragraphs in fiction writing, such a situation is very rare in content writing. When a long quotation appears, each paragraph will begin with an open quotation mark, but only the very end of the quoted material in the last paragraph will be marked with a closing quotation mark.
- Quotations used for emphasis. Have you ever noticed a sign in the grocery store’s produce section promising “FRESH” STRAWBERRIES – $1.19 A BASKET? Your grocer—poor dear—thinks the sign emphasizes the just-picked ripeness of his wares. Everyone else sees this as an example of ironic quotation marks, as if your grocer were suggesting that “someone told me these were fresh, but I have my doubts; therefore, I’m going to use quotation marks to indicate this was not my chosen adjective and I don’t stand behind the description.” Or consider this example from recent content writing that has crossed my desk: “According to the ‘slip, trip, and fall prevention experts’ at the National Floor Safety Institute, your risk of seriously injuring yourself in a slip and fall accident increases significantly with every decade of your life.” Here, the writer’s choice to put “slip, trip, and fall prevention experts” in quotes casts doubt on those experts’ credentials—precisely the opposite effect that the writer desired. Ouch.
The Most Important Thing Content Writers Don’t Know About Quotation Marks
If you write promotional or informative website content for a medical practice, law firm, or other business, you’re already familiar with the meta description: a brief summary of an article that displays in search engine results lists. Readers using Google and other search engines use meta descriptions to decide whether to look at the whole article, so it makes sense to write engaging meta descriptions to appeal to your readers’ interests.
Here’s what you almost certainly were never told: search engine scanners throw up when they find quotation marks in meta descriptions. Their circuits jam. Their subroutines go “ka-pow!” They truncate—programmer jargon for “cut off”—all your text from the quotation mark onward, so it never appears in the search results.
Now, you certainly don’t want that to happen. Here’s the solution: avoid quotation marks in meta descriptions. If it’s impossible not to use them, then substitute single quotes for double quotation marks.
And Your Most Important Resource for Punctuation Questions
Your very most important resource, of course, is your in-house editor. Time and again we’ve stressed that you need an expert editor who will act as the gatekeeper to your Internet marketing. Your editor (or editorial team) should check every bit of content before it’s posted. Oh, and make a point of giving your editor or proofreader the occasional pat on the back or “Great job, Maureen!” memo. We like that recognition the same as everyone else in your office.
Here at Foster Web Marketing, we have a team that also has your back. Get in touch with us if you have nettlesome quotation mark conundrums, punctuation puzzles, or English enigmas—or post your poser in the comments section of this page to open up a general discussion. We promise a spirited debate on your issue!