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”?


 Use a Semicolon to Save the Semicolon



The semicolon is dying a slow death. The blue droopy line in the graph above is from Google Ngram Viewer–a very cool off-shoot of Google Books. Based on the books already digitized, the Ngram Viewer provides a simple service: display the frequency of a word or phrase in a corpus of about 5 million books from 1500 to present. (Also, you can type in multiple phrases and words to see a comparison of usage. My favorite comparison: ketchup v. catsup. Watch this great TED talk about the tool if you are curious to learn more).

But not just for words, the Ngram Viewer can tell us about the usage of the semicolon. From the graph, it’s easy to see that semicolon usage peaked in the late 1700′s and has slowly been declining since then. We do see an uptick again once we hit the 2000′s, but I think this might be from the rise in computer programming languages and books printed about how to write those languages (30/46 languages use the semicolon as part of their syntax).

Still why the decline in usage? What has lead to this drop in its popularity? One culprit is that the semicolon was overused in the past. Authors were giddy with semicolon love and they used it as much as they could. In non-fiction, and even fiction, from the 1700′s and 1800′s, the semicolon seems to be on every page and in every paragraph, like authors needed semicolons like trees need sun. So the decline in usage could be a reaction to its overuse and a trend to a more normalization and balance.

But our work is not yet complete. Will we leave this punctuation to the teens and the programmers? By learning about how to use the semicolon, you can revive this failing punctuation mark and ensure that it isn’t relegated only to winking smiley faces in texts messages and end-of-line markers in computer languages.



I. Semicolons connect closely related independent clauses

A semicolon can add needed variety to the structure and rhythm of your sentences. Instead of always combining independent clauses with a comma/conjunction duo, try a semicolon. Make sure that the two independent clauses joined together are closely related. That means, they should be on the same topic, even have the same subject.

Ice cream is a delicious dessert; I can’t eat it every day, though.

A semicolon can be effective in linking two independent ideas that are contrasting or in opposition too.

To err is human; to forgive is divine.

Cookies are good; ice cream is better.

II. Semicolons separate items in a list when the list-items contain commas

Semicolons can fill the role of a comma when items in the list contain commas.

I have lived in Mumbai, India; San Francisco, California; Prague, Austria; and Tokyo, Japan.

Watching Casa de mi Padre made me realize that The Three Amigos, a quirky comedy about silent film actors heading to Mexico to protect a town from bandits, was ahead of its time; that Will Ferrell, although not thought of as a dramatic actor, is dramatic when he wants to be; and that more movies in the U.S. will be made for the rising population of Latinos.



John R. Trimble, author of Writing with Style, gives three succinct reasons for using a semicolon:

1. A semicolon adds variety.

Always using conjunctions and commas to join sentences can become boring and repetitive. A semicolon can break up this repetition, can give your reader something different to look at, and can change the rhythm and pace of your sentences.

2. A semicolon allows for compact and concise sentences.

Semicolons allow writers to be efficient with space and to eliminate the need for polysyllabic words, like however, unfortunately, and because, when linking ideas. The sentence is distilled down to its essence with a semicolon.

3. A semicolon allows for unity.

The semicolon can add smooth, clean, quick transitions from one idea to the next. Sometimes a period breaks the action too much and a conjunction-comma pair is too messy and cumbersome. A semicolon can eliminate these problems by linking clauses in an efficient, coherent bundle.


If you need one more reason to consider using the semicolon, head over to The Oatmeal, which has a wonderfully silly, yet informative poster on the semicolon (Click on the image).


 Run-On Sentences



By František Chalupa (1828 - 1887), via Wikimedia Commons

Forgive the hyperbole, but a run-on sentence is a train wreck–nasty and wrenching like in the image above. On an early morning in November of 1868, Hungarian and Slovak soldiers were going home after military exercises when their train stopped due to deep snow on the tracks. A cargo train loaded down with coal, not far behind, didn’t know the soldiers’ train had stopped. And when the conductor did see the stopped train ahead, what could be done? The train was too heavy, going too fast, with too little track to stop. Four cars were destroyed killing many passengers.

With proper planning, diligent revising, and an eye for common problem areas, you will be able to eliminate any chance of a train wreck in your writing.

I. What’s a Sentence?

A sentence is a complete proposition. That means, a sentence is a question, a recommendation, an opinion, a theory, an exclamation–all manner of formulations. In all of these cases, a topic (also known as the subject) is identified and something about that topic is described (also known as the predicate). Only two words are needed for a sentence–All aboard!

II. Dependent Clause vs. Independent Clause

A sentence has another name in the grammar world–independent clause. Aptly named, the independent clause has full freedom, autonomy, and ability to stand alone, as sentences do. The dependent clause is not so lucky; it must link up with an independent clause for survival. Dependent clauses are incomplete thoughts, partial statements, and half-formed questions that exist only to augment independent clauses.

Don’t forget that a clause is a collection of words that contains a subject and a verb.

An example of an independent clause is this sentence that you are reading. An example of a dependent clause is “when the rain stopped” or “after he washed the sheets.” One “fancy” grammar trick to change a dependent clause into an independent clause is to remove the word at the beginning of the clause. Thus, “the rain stopped” and “he washed the sheets” are transformed into independent clauses.

III. Common Run-on Errors

A run-on sentence is really not one sentence but two. When two sentences are not properly coordinated or punctuated, a run-on occurs. There are two main errors.

Comma Splice

A comma splice is one type of run-on sentence. In this case, the author uses a comma, not a period or a semicolon, to connect two independent clauses. In the example below, the comma between shorter and spring is incorrect. Continue to the next section to see how to revise this error.

RUN-ON: The days are becoming shorter and shorter, spring will soon become summer.

Fused Sentences

Fused sentences are two independent clauses with no punctuation between them. English has very specific rules concerning how to join independent clauses in one sentence. Continue to the next section to learn how to revise this error.

RUN-ON: Snow fell in the early morning light still the surfers loaded their surfboards into the car and headed to the ocean.

IV. How to Correct


A period, in replace of a comma, is one way to repair a comma splice. The period correctly ends one independent cause, keeping it separate from another. Use a period to separate clauses when each clause has enough content to stand on its own. Also, don’t forget to capitalize the first word of the new sentence.

The days are becoming shorter and shorter. Spring will soon become summer.

Snow fell in the early morning light. Still the surfers loaded their surfboards into the car and headed to the ocean.

Comma and a Coordinating Conjunction

English allows two independent clauses to exist in one sentence if they are connected with a comma and a coordinating conjunction. Grammarians call this type of sentence a compound sentence. There are only seven coordinating conjunctions in English: and, or, nor, but, so, yet, & for. When used to connect independent clauses, place a comma before the word.

Correct a run-on sentence with a coordinating conjunction when one clause chronologically continues, adds to, contrasts with, or results from the first. This is also a good way to add variety to your sentences.

The days are becoming shorter and shorter, so spring will soon become summer.

Snow fell in the early morning light, but still the surfers loaded their surfboards into the car and headed to the ocean.


The only other way to connect two independent clauses in one sentence is with a semicolon. Authors use a semicolon when the second clause redefines, adds more detail, explains, or is closely connected to the first clause.

The days are becoming shorter and shorter; spring will soon become summer.

Snow fell in the early morning light; still the surfers loaded their surfboards into the car and headed to the ocean.

Make a Dependent Clause

Making one clause dependent will create a complete sentence. In this correction, notice that other aspects of the clauses had to be changed whereas in the other corrections, no other changes were needed besides punctuation or the addition of a coordinating conjunction. Uses words, like after, since, when, or if to form a dependent clause. Make sure to properly coordinate the two clauses as well; be thoughtful when choosing a clause to subordinate.

Since the days are becoming shorter and shorter, spring will soon become summer.

Regardless of the snow falling in the early morning light, the surfers loaded their surfboards into the car and headed to the ocean.