How to Punctuate Quotes



In a previous article, we covered when to use quotation marks. Now let’s learn how to punctuation them.


Commas and colons are the only punctuation marks used before a quote. Using these two is straightforward and uncomplicated, and you may already have an intuitive sense of how to use them from your readings. (Sidenote: in your journey through older texts, you many find that some authors place a dash before a quotation. This use is now antiquated and should be avoided.)



Use the comma before a citation or direct speech. The comma introduces the quote, and allows the reader to pause momentarily before continuing. Nearly all quotations of direct speech will begin with a comma. Often the comma will come after phrases like ‘she said’ or ‘she asked.’

She turned toward the sun and asked, “When will a day truly be mine?”

Don’t use a comma, or any punctuation, if you lead into the quote with the word ‘that.’

Mark Twain said that “The coldest winter [he] ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.”

And in some cases, you won’t even use quotation marks as shown in the example bellow.

I overheard her say that she wants the day to be hers. What does that mean?



In three situations, colons are more appropriate for introducing quotes:

(1) If you write a complete thought, and the quote that follows illustrates what you wrote, use a colon. This is most common with citations, but not exclusively so.

President Obama’s positive attitude is clear in his campaign slogan: “Yes we can!”


(2) When the quote is long—longer than a single sentence or longer than two short sentences—use a colon. Again this is more common with citations.

John Cleese wrote a clever piece of satire about European nations and their threat levelst. Perhaps stereotypical and a slight offensive, but this is the fault of most great comedy: “The French government announced yesterday that it has raised its terror alert level from ‘Run’ to ‘Hide.’ The only two higher levels in France are ‘Collaborate’ and ‘Surrender.’ The rise was precipitated by a recent fire that destroyed France’s white flag factory, effectively paralyzing the country’s military capability.”


(3) Use a colon with block quotations—hefty, long quotes indented and separate from the rest of the paragraph. Blockquotes don’t actually have quotation marks since indenting and quotation marks indicate the same thing—a direct, word‐for‐word citation. But in the example below, due to formating limitations, I have left the quotation marks.

Milan Kundera begins his novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, unlike other novels. He begins with philosophy:

“The idea of the eternal return is a mysterious one, and Nietzsche has often perplexed other philosophers with it: to think that everything recurs as we have experienced it, and the recurrence itself recurs ad infinitum! What does this mad myth signify? Putting it negatively, the myth of eternal return states that a life which disappears once and for all, which does not return, is like a shadow, without weight, dead in advance, and whether horrible, beautiful, or sublime, its horror, sublimity, and beauty mean nothing.”


Proficient writers can drop punctuation altogether at the beginning of quotes by crafting a sentence whose syntax matches that of the quote. This is especially true when citing only a phrase or clause.

Kundera’s book is about just that, about the “shadows, without weight, dead in advance.” Or to put it negatively, a life full of weight is more meaningful and desirable.



When a quotation is interrupted before completion, a comma will signal the beginning of the break and the end of the break. The first comma is placed inside of the closing punctuation mark; the last comma will proceed the initial quotation mark of the rest of the quote. Seeing an example will make this clear.

“Margaret, why is it,” asked James sternly, “that every time I leave the room, you eat all of my ice cream? I fill the bowl back up and you just eat it. Why?”

This is the primary way to break a quote into two parts. No other punctuation marks are used.



Periods & Commas

From the previous examples, you are able to see some of the typical ways to punctuate the end of a quotation: punctuation mark first, then the end punctuation mark.

Yet some differences in end punctuation do arise depending on your geography.

If you write for an American audience, always place a period or comma inside the final quotation mark, regardless of the original quote. The following quote comes from Plato’s Apology. This is Socrates speaking to the court which just condemned him to death:

AMERICAN AUDIENCE: “You are wrong if you believe by killing people you will prevent anyone from reproaching you for not living in the right way.”

AMERICAN AUDIENCE: Perhaps we need to define “living the right way.”

If you write for a British audience, placement of the end punctuation mark depends on the original quote. So, if the original quote did not have the punctuation, you need to keep the punctuation out of the quote. Although some exceptions do apply (as if this isn’t confusing enough), like in fiction, the punctuation marks can live inside of the quotation mark.

BRITISH AUDIENCE: Perhaps we need to define “living the right way”.


Colons & Semicolons

Americans and Britons agree–keep them outside of the last quotation mark. Unless, of course, it is part of the original quotation. Let’s look at a quote from the Rig-Veda X, a creation story:

“When neither Being nor Not-Being was”: in the Christian tradition, this same idea reads differently but is uncanny in its similarity.

“What did it encompass? Where? In whose protection?”; these questions, though, are not found in the Christian Bible.


Exclamation & Question Marks

If the original text contained an exclamation or question mark, keep the end mark inside of the end quotation.

ORIGINAL TEXT: What did it encompass? Where? In whose protection?

CITATION: “What did it encompass? Where? In whose protection?”

But if the text did not contain an exclamation or question mark, and it is your addition, place the end marks outside of the end quotation.

ORIGINAL TEXT: Wise seers, searching within their hearts.

CITATION: But what does this line mean: “Wiser seers, searching within their hearts”?


 Comma Usage: Administrative Tasks


By Pizarros (Own work) CC-BY-SA-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Nothing quite sums up administrative work better than a pile of papers waiting to be organized and filed. Only a picture of the DMV with flickering fluorescent lights and endless lines could better illustrate the humdrum and menial that tends to pervade administrative work. But this characterization doesn’t present the full story. True, it is repetitive, and true, it can be menial, but administration in a large government or organization is vital to its success.

The real hurdle that has to be made for anything to go from big to ginormous, and still function properly, is organizational and administrative. A company must first identify the repetitive, routine tasks and then streamline and standardize them across all levels. Only by doing so, can the company expand across oceans and landmasses and employee or serve thousands, sometimes millions, of people. Furthermore, the classifying and standardization of administrative tasks allows the company or government to function at a higher level, dealing with the more complex issues that they will inevitably encounter.

The comma–the versatile little punctuation mark that it is–not only has more creative and independent tasks, but also rises to the occasion for the more administrative punctuation ones. And like the administrative work discussed, this use of the comma doesn’t involve any higher order cognitive skill or complex grammar processing. All you need is to know the times when a comma needs to do some administrative work in your sentence and put it to the job. That means no authorial choice; you have to use commas in these situations.

For a look at the other ways to use a comma, read these other articles: Comma Usage: Connector and Separator and Comma Usage: For Spicing It Up.


Commas with quotations

A common place to find commas is with quotations, either as a lead in or lead out. When citing a written work or directly quoting what someone says, a comma is used to lead into the quotation, that is, before the first quotation mark. Also, if the end quotation is not the end of the sentence, a comma will be used before the last quotation mark to transition into the rest of the sentence. There are examples of both below. (Note: colons can be used to introduce longer quotations as well.)

Leo Tolstoy’s famous novel begins, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

“I’ve set a record for guys that I can meet on OKCupid in one day,” lamented a woman sitting in a hip San Francisco coffee shop.

If another punctuation mark ends the quote, you do not need to use a comma.

INCORRECT: “Where are the lion cubs?,” asked the toddler.

CORRECT: “Where are the lion cubs?” asked the toddler.


Commas with dates

Commas are used in dates between the day and year. In some cases, though, you will not need to use a comma. It all depends on how you write the date.

COMMA: April 1, 1982

NO COMMA: April 1982

NO COMMA: 1 April 1982


Commas with addresses

Commas rise to do the administrative work of separating cities and states as well as states and countries. Additionally, commas separate the street address and the city.

San Francisco, California

New Delhi, India

1600 Pennsylvania Ave., NW, Washington, DC 20500


Commas with numbers

With large numbers, commas improve readability, allowing the reader to process the number faster. With numbers that only reach the thousand digit, the comma is optional, but after the thousand’s digit, definitely use a comma. Lastly, don’t use a comma with years–unless you are reading this in year 2,321,930 A.D.

8,343 (or 8343)



It is the year 2013.


Commas with salutations

 When writing a letter, the comma is used after the person’s name in the salutation. In formal letters, a colon can be used as well.

Dear Santa Claus,

I found out this year that you are not real. As such, I want all the cookies and milk back that you deceptively expropriated from our house.

 Comma Usage: For Spicing It Up



Spice Bazaar in Istanbul

In our second installment on comma usage, we are spicing it up. And by “it” I mean our sentences. Often authors are looking for ways to add a little more detail, a little more information, and a little more context to their sentences. They use introductory words, prepositional phrases, appositives, and other modifying phrases to spice up a sentence. By doing so, authors can avoid writing more sentences and it allows them to vary the rhythm and structure of their writing. When spicing up sentences in this way, commas play an important role.

Go to first installment for more examples: ”Comma Usage: Connector and Separator


Commas with nonrestrictive (nonessential) words and phrases

Use commas to surround nonessential elements in your sentence. The idea behind this rule is straightforward enough: put a comma at the beginning and at the end of your nonessential information. But how do you know if the word group is essential or nonessential, restrictive or nonrestrictive?

This is one of those times in grammar and punctuation that the choice falls to the author. You must decide if the information you are providing is “restricting” the meaning of something so that your reader doesn’t confuse it with something else, or if the information you are providing is “nonrestrictive” and merely adds more information to the sentence.

Try this as a test: remove the phrase or words from your sentence. Does it change the meaning? Does the sentence now apply to something more general? If you answered yes, you found essential, restrictive elements in your sentence, and thus no need to use commas. But, if nothing really changes and your meaning is essentially unchanged, except that their might be a little less information in the sentence, you have found nonrestrictive, nonessential elements.

Let’s look at an example of a restrictive use and a nonrestrictive use of the phrase, “who are over the age of seventy”.

Seniors who are over the age of seventy are required to retake the driving test and eye examine before renewing their driving licence.

In the previous example, removing the phrase, “who are over the age of seventy,” would alter the meaning of “seniors.” Right now, the phrase is restricting the meaning of seniors to a select group–the ones over seventy–which is necessary for the meaning of the sentence to be clear. Thus the content of the sentence, and ultimately the author’s choice, dictate the use of commas.

Those two, who are over the age of seventy, meet at the cafe every morning to play chess.

In this second example, the phrase is surrounded by commas. Try removing the phrase from the sentence. Does the meaning remain intact? Essentially, yes, it remains the same. Although it might be a little more difficult to discern which two people the author is talking about, the phrase does not narrow or define something in the sentence. It is not essential for understanding the ideas conveyed. As such, the author used a comma before and after the phrase.

In addition, the words “that” and “which” can both be used to start phrases and clauses. As a general rule, use “that” with phrases and clauses that are essential to the meaning of your sentence, and use “which” with phrases and clauses that are not essential to the sentence. This is why a comma is used before “which” but not before “that”.


Comma with introductions

After introductory words and word groups, use a comma–just like in this sentence. There are many occasions when an author needs to preface the main content of the sentence with some information. That information can be a transition word or a phrase that clarifies the time or place of the content in the sentence. Sometimes the introduction is a subordinate clause that is helping to convey information about the main clause. Whatever the case, use a comma at the end the introduction.

WORD: However, she hasn’t been to work in a week, and I am starting to worry.

If a introductory word occurs in the middle of the sentence, make sure to surround the word with commas:

WORD: She hasn’t been to work in a week, however, and I am starting to worry.

PHRASE: In the summer of 1816, a “dry fog” hung over the northeastern United States dimming the sun allowing observers to see sun spots.

CLAUSE: Since farmers did not know the benefits of rotating crops in their fields, many farms went fallow due to a lack of nutrients in the soil.


Commas with parenthetical statements, contrasts, and asides

Authors like to include little asides, contrasts, and parenthetical information in sentences. This is information that interrupts the flow of the sentence, but does not change the essential meaning of the sentence. The reasons for adding information are numerous, but in all cases, commas are used to set off the information from the rest of the sentence.

After a long fall, and the winter wasn’t any shorter, the spring finally descended on Cape Cod bringing the first tourists and vacationers.

The simplest ice cream is made with dairy, sugar, egg, not by freezing cream.


Comma with tag sentences and direct address

A tag sentence is usually a question added to the end of a sentence. These tag sentences prompt the reader for a response or convey other information.

We should leave, shouldn’t we?

The package of ice cream will arrive today, I hope.

I think the solutions is a prime number, right?

Direct address refers to times when a person is directly addressed by name or when a group is addressed by name. In these cases, you will need to use commas to set off the direct address from the rest of the sentence.

Brothers and sisters, we are gathered here today to remember our friend who has passed from this life into the next.

You will receive our decision, Gillian, later in the week.

Jeremy, my friend, you are too late for dinner, but just in time for ice cream.


Return next Tuesday for more rules on common usage. If you can’t wait until then, check out another article about commas: “Comma Usage: Connector and Separator.”

 Comma Usage: Connector and Separator



Daniel Schwen, GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

“A comma is just a coupler.”

“What’s that? A thing that makes couples?”

“I suppose so.”

Technically speaking, a coupler is the mechanism in the image above that connects one train car to the next. It also separates the train cars enough to keep them from knocking into each other. So, in a way, a coupler is something that makes couples. Another type of coupler is a comma (they almost look the same too). Commas can play the same role in a sentence–connecting or separating.


Within English, the comma has many roles and many uses, which can cause students trouble. Commas appear in writing a lot–almost as pervasive as the period–and since students see a lot of commas in writing, they tend to use the comma haphazardly whenever they are unsure what to do. If they feel like they need punctuation, but aren’t sure what kind, they use a comma. If students feel like they need to elevate their writing, but aren’t sure how, they use commas. This can be corrected, though.


The word “comma”, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, comes from the the Greek “komma” (κόμμα), which means “something cut off” or “a short clause”. The definition and origin of the word comma does hint at its purpose. But ultimately, as with any punctuation, a comma is a mark used to increase readability; a way to tell your reader how to read what you wrote–specifically, when to pause.


The comma is used in numerous situations in a sentence. Some of these situations require a comma and some of these situations depend on the choice of the writer. In this post, I want to focus on a the comma as a connector and separator. You’ll find that these are instances that require a comma, so no authorial choice here.


Comma + Coordinating Conjunction

A comma must accompany a coordinating conjunction when linking independent clauses. Instead of using a semicolon or a period to create a sentence that contains two subjects and two predicates, writers use words, like “and” or “but”, to join ideas and show their relationship.

So anytime that you find a sentence linked to another sentence with a coordinating conjunction (and, or, for, nor, but, yet, so), you must use a comma.

Ice cream is delicious, and I smile when I eat it.

The state fair begins tomorrow, but I think that I will go on the weekend.


Comma in a series or list

Another very common way to use a comma is to separate items in a series or list.  The comma perfectly signals to the reader where one item ends and another begins.

The best ice cream flavors are rocky road, coconut, and dulce de leche.

Can you pick up eggs, a blue ball, nine apples, a piano seat, and eye glasses at the store when you go?

Debates rage over whether to put a comma before the coordinating conjunction in a list. That is the comma after coconut and seat in the examples above. I intend to write an entire article tackling this issue. For now, continue to do what you do, and if you don’t have something that you regularly do, start including the comma after the conjunction.


Comma with equal adjectives

Just like in a list of items, a comma should also be used when you have a list of equal adjectives. Equal adjectives are generally less common than other adjectives, like colors, numbers, and shapes, and each adjective equally and individually modifies the noun. However, with the more common adjectives, which tend to stack on top of each other, each one describes the next in turn, until arriving at the noun.

The deft, nimble, aged hands of the carpenter quickly whittled a small doll for the young girl.

In the sentence above, the words deft, nimble and aged each describe hands. The best way to know if you are using equal adjectives is to reorder the adjectives (“aged, deft, nimble hands”). If your phrase still makes sense, then use commas. Another test is to read your phrase with “and” inserted between the adjectives (“deft and nimble and aged hands”). If it makes senses, then they are equal adjectives. If it sounds strange, they are not equal, and you will not use a comma. For example:

I ate three red apples.

In the sentence above, if you reorder the adjectives three and red, the sentence will sound very strange (“red three apples”). Also, if you place the word “and” between them (“three and red apples), the sentence will sound strange. Thus these adjectives should not be separated by a comma.

The rules governing comma usage are extensive. We have only touched on three so far. Next week, another article on commas will look at some of the other comma rules.


The series on commas continues: “Comma Usage: For Spicing It Up.”