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”?


 When to Use Quotation Marks



Quotation marks come in pairs, in multiple versions (single or double), and in multiple styles (vertical or curved). Most know that quotation marks are for letting everyone know that someone is speaking. We also know that quotes from a book or from a person should be surrounded by quotation marks. But there are some lesser known ways to use quotation marks that will help you to be more expressive in your writing.

In this post, we will look at when to use and not use quotation marks. Next week we will look at how to punctuate with quotation marks (not as straightforward as it sounds).


I. With direct quotations

Direct quotes come in two varieties: speech or citation.


This use is common in fiction or nonfiction when indicating what characters say aloud (although quotes can also be used to signify internal thoughts too), and in news articles and magazines when quoting an interview.

“Hello, who is it?” asked Major Maulthweitz.

“It’s Honey Bee,” came the response on the other side of the door.

“Honey Bee, who?” said Major Maulthweitz with a questioning look.

“Honey, be a dear and bring me my coat,” said Major Maulthweitz’s wife.


This occurs when writers copy other writers word-for-word with no changes. Writers do this to provide support for an idea, provide proof of a thesis, to analyze a text, to refute another author, or merely to express an idea in more eloquent language than the author may be able to.

Kundera begins his novel not with setting or character or plot, but rather with philosophy. The Unbearable Lightness of Being begins here: ”The idea of eternal return is a mysterious one, and Nietzsche has often perplexed other philosophers with it: to think that everything recurs as we once experienced it, and that the recurrence itself recurs ad infinitum!  What does this mad myth signify?”


II. For titles of small works

For the title of things that are published or released within a larger work, use quotation marks. This includes the titles of chapters in a book; of TV episodes; of articles in a newspaper, magazine, or journal; titles of songs; of short stories; and of poems. If you are unsure it you should use quotes, ask yourself a simple question, “Is this the title of something that is part a larger work?” If you answer, “yes,” use quotes; if you answer, “no,” italicize or underline the title.

newspaper article: “The High-Flavor, Low-Dogma Healthy Diet,” by Mark Bittman of The New York Times

song title: “Like a Rolling Stone,” by Bob Dylan

chapters: “Why are People,” The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins

TV episodes: “Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen,” M*A*S*H

short stories: “Master and Man,” by Leo Tolstoy

III. For times when referring to a word or phrase

Use quotes to indicate that you are talking about a word or phrase, not using the word for its meaning. In this way, the word or phrase is under discussion. Italicizing the word or phrase is another common way to let the reader know the same thing: “I am talking about this word. I’m not using this in my writing right now.”

The word “patronizing” has two meanings that don’t seem to be related: one about being a customer and the other about being kind to hind a feeling of superiority.


IV. To indicate irony

Use quotes around words when you don’t intend them to be taken seriously, that is, to indicate verbal irony. (Verbal irony is when a person says one thing but means the exact opposite.) This is actually the only time, too, when a punctuation mark has a life outside of written text–air quotes with your fingers indicate that the speaker is being ironic. The comic above is funny for this reason. (Is he really handsome?)

That is such a “beautiful” painting.

The recent “democratic” election in Venezuela had many irregularities.

The comic is also relevant to the next point.


V. To indicate a special usage of a word

At times, authors use words in ways that don’t adhere to normal usage. Maybe they using a word in a creative way, or using a phrase in an abnormal fashion. Use quotes for these times. After establishing this unconventional use of a word, though, the quotes are usually dropped in subsequent uses.

Stephen Fried coined the neologism, “fashionista,” in his book, Thing of Beauty: The Tragedy of the Supermodel Gia.


VI. Use with nicknames

Use quotation marks around a nickname.

ex‐wrestler Jesse “the Body” Ventura

ex‐governor Jesse “the Brain” Ventura



VII. NOT with indirect quotations

Unless you are writing word‐for‐word what an author wrote or a person said, don’t use quotation marks. Paraphrases or a summaries do not need quotation marks.

ORIGINAL: All through the house, no animal stirred, not even a mouse.

INCORRECT: “All through the house, nothing moved, not even a mouse.”

CORRECT: “All through the house, no animal stirred, not even a mouse.”

But if you need to change a single word for clarity, this can be accomplished with brackets [ ]. This is sometimes necessary when fitting the quotation into the syntax of your sentence or when clarify who or what is being discussed

ORIGINAL: He knew that it was a good idea, but he didn’t know it would turn into a billion dollar idea.

QUOTE: “[Mark Zuckerberg] knew that [Facebook] was a good idea, but he didn’t know it would turn into a billion dollar idea.


VIII. NOT with a cliche

Cliches should be avoided, but if used, they definitely should not be surrounded by quotes. For one, a cliche is already a violation of style–aim to be unique–and by surrounding a cliche with quotes, the writer highlights this offense. Second, and even worse, the quotes indicate that the writer knew about the violation and went ahead with it anyway. The quotes seem to be asking the reader to forgive the writer for such an offense. But quotes are not meant as an entreaty for forgiveness.

INCORRECT: The problem is similar to “searching for a needle in a haystack.”


IX. NOT To add emphasis

Store signs and billboards incorrectly use quotation marks to add emphasis to the words, often with unintended comical repercussions. This is not correct and should not be imitated. There is also an entire blog dedicated to this fault.

INCORRECT: Sale “Fresh” Apples

INCORRECT: Don’t let “back” pain keep you from enjoying the summer.

INCORRECT: Produce for “you”



 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.