CS Sealey

New Zealand-based sub-editor, writer and author

Quotation marks

Many good and useful things come in pairs—eyes, colourful socks, earbuds when children are around, wheels on a bike… and quotation marks!

First things first—let’s sort out some stylistic variations.

Like many things in language, there are decisions about style that seem to be adopted primarily by different countries around the world. While single quotations may appear to be a UK-based trend, they are seen everywhere in Australia and in some places in the United States. Similarly, in Australia, you will see double quotations used quite often. There is no right or wrong answer for this phenomenon, just the desire to keep things consistent within a single writer’s work. If you start using single quotations, stick with it. The worst thing you can do is chop and change within a project.

Another difference in style, however, does appear to be more location-based. When using quotations to cite a title, American English users tend to put the final quotation mark outside any punctuation, like this:

Last night, Jimmy went to see ‘Les Miserablés.’

While British users would write that sentence thusly:

Last night, Jimmy went to see ‘Les Miserablés’.

While the British English style makes more sense to me and looks more appealing, the US style is common enough to have gained it the official alternative status. However, the more logical approach, and the one that I have adopted, is the UK example—enclosing the cited words within quotations, excluding punctuation. It is very important to note, though, that if the title itself includes punctuation, make sure you include the punctuation within the quotation marks—for example, the musical Oliver!

My favourite musical of this year is ‘Oliver!’

For more information on exclamation marks, click here.

Quotation marks are most often used to surround a section of quoted direct speech. Unlike the above discrepancies between UK and US English, this usage of quotation marks is uniform.

Sarah sprinted after them and cried, ‘You can’t leave without me!’

‘I refuse to admit I was wrong!’ Tom said pompously.

‘But, Remy,’ Mary insisted, ‘this isn’t the end of the world.’

Here, see how the punctuation is contained within the quotation marks? Whether you use single or double quotations, punctuation should always be written this way.

For more examples and rules about the comma and its use with quotation marks, click here.

Do not use quotation marks when indicating indirect speech. Such as:

My teacher told me I would do well if I tried harder.

If I had wished to use quotation marks, I would also have to use direct speech, which would make my sentence look something like this:

My teacher told me, ‘Carmel, you would do well if you tried harder!’

You may notice that, in some instances, you will see double quotations within an element of direct speech (or single quotations, if you are using the US style). This is how a character can quote another’s speech within their own quoted dialogue.

‘You can’t say “mine” on the soccer field,’ the coach explained to his team.

‘Joe, can you stop saying “I’m the best!” every time you win, please?’

‘I loved the bit where Batman screamed, “Where are they?” and smacked the Joker’s head on the table,’ Chris said.

Quite often, sentences that begin with a statement end in a section of direct speech.

Camilla was too embarrassed to admit the truth, so she said, ‘It wasn’t me.’

Should that section of direct speech end with a question, the overall sentence also ends at that question mark. The quotations then neatly surround the speech. For example:

Natalie ran up to me, hit me across the face and asked, ‘Where the hell have you been?’

Luke scratched his head and wondered aloud to himself, ‘Where am I this time?’

However, sometimes, a question ends with a quoted statement. In that circumstance, the set of quotations should surround the statement, then be finished off with the question mark, like so:

What would happen if I wrote into my English essay: ‘I hate English’?

‘Who was it who said, “I came, I saw, I conquered”?’

‘How come it’s me who gets in trouble whenever Simon yells, “Hey, loser”?’ Paul complained.

Earlier, I mentioned that quotation marks come in pairs and, in the above examples, you can see how well this is demonstrated. Whether you use single or double quotation marks, they should always have a beginning and an end. There is one exception to this rule, however. (When is there not?!) When a long section of dialogue must be broken up into paragraphs, instead of closing off the first paragraph and then opening the next one on the following line, it has become the norm to neglect closing the paragraph. In an extended run of paragraphs, only the last one should be closed off with a quotation mark. For example:

‘Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipisicing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat.

‘Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollit anim id est laborum.

‘Sed ut perspiciatis unde omnis iste natus error sit voluptatem accusantium doloremque laudantium, totam rem aperiam, eaque ipsa quae ab illo inventore veritatis et quasi architecto beatae vitae dicta sunt explicabo.

‘Nemo enim ipsam voluptatem quia voluptas sit aspernatur aut odit aut fugit, sed quia consequuntur magni dolores eos qui ratione voluptatem sequi nesciunt.’

This way, the entire speech—all four paragraphs of it—run smoothly together without the confusion of possible multiple speakers or the need to label each paragraph with the speaker’s name.

So there we have it—the quotation marks explained, to some extent. If you have any further questions about their use, don’t hesitate to drop me an email.

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