How to Punctuate Quotes

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

BEFORE THE QUOTE

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.)

 

Commas

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?

 

Colons

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.

 

BREAKING A QUOTE IN THE MIDDLE

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.

 

END OF THE QUOTE

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”?