Quotations are an essential part of narrative writing, but they are vexing to format. Many of the formatting rules concerning quotations depend on the punctuation mark used. Time for a guide!

Quotation marks are punctuation marks used in pairs in various writing systems to set off direct speech, a quotation, or a phrase. The pair consists of an opening quotation mark and a closing quotation mark, which may or may not be the same character.

It depends on if you are using American or British style which quotation marks to use. American style uses double quotes (“) for initial quotations, then single quotes (‘) for quotations within the initial quotation. British style uses single quotes (‘) for initial quotations, then double quotes (“) for quotations within the initial quotation. For example:

American: “To the left and right of these words are what they call ‘quotation marks.’”
British: ‘To the left and right of these words are what they call “quotation marks”.’

Prior to the 1900’s, compositors―people who layout printed material with type―placed periods and commas inside quotation marks to protect the commas and periods from breaking off the end of the sentence. The Fowler brothers, of the famous British style guide, “The King’s English” lobbied to base the rules on logic instead of the mechanics of typesetting, and their new system was adopted in Britain. Americans stuck with the old rules, so we ended up with different styles.

“Quotation marks are punctuation marks
used in pairs in various writing systems
to set off direct speech, a quotation,
or a phrase
.

 

“In both American and British English, all marks other than commas or periods are placed outside the quotation marks, unless they are part of the original quotation.

The easiest punctuation marks to remember this with are semicolons and colons. They never go inside the quotation marks as they never end direct speech. If they would, they would be part of the original quotation and go inside it. Some examples:

Her favorite movie is “Wonder Woman”; she has seen it a million times.

Her favorite line from “Wonder Woman”: “I will fight for those who cannot fight for themselves.”

In that same line, (em) dashes in narrative writing go inside of the quotation marks when the character who is talking is cut off by another character, and outside of them when the character is cut off by the authors.

“What are you—”
“Just stop, okay? For once, just stop!”

“What”—Sarah’s voice broke—“are you doing?”

“In both American and British English,
all marks other than commas or
periods are placed outside the quotation
marks, unless they are part of the original
quotation.

 

Question marks and exclamation points follow the same rule as set out before: outside the quotation marks, unless they are part of the original quotation.

Sarah asked, “What are you doing?”
Sarah shouted, “Don’t do that!”

Have you really never seen “Wonder Woman”?
I can’t believe you never saw “Wonder Woman”!

If the latter is a line of dialogue, it’s quotation mark galore. It depends on the style of writing where the quotation marks go, and which quotation marks to use, as previously indicated:

American: “I can’t believe you’ve never seen ‘Wonder Woman’!”
British: ‘I can’t believe you’ve never seen “Wonder Woman”!’

“It depends on the style of writing where
the quotation marks go, and which
quotation marks to use.

 

Periods and commas are the hardest, because it depends entirely on style. In American English, periods and commas always go inside the quotation marks, but in British English periods and commas can go inside of outside of it. It’s preferred to put them outside of the quotation marks.

American: “Quotation marks confuse me,” Sarah said.
American: I’ve picked up a copy of “Wonder Woman.”

British: ‘Quotation marks confuse me’, Sarah said.
British: I’ve picked up a copy of ‘Wonder Woman’.

“Periods and commas are the hardest,
because it depends entirely on style
.”

 

As you can see, much punctuation grief can be avoided by cutting dialogue tags from your writing—which is the preferred modern method of writing dialogue anyway. If you do end up struggling with punctuation and quotation marks, remember the two main rules:

  • In both American and British English, all marks other than commas or periods are placed outside the quotation marks, unless they are part of the original quotation
  • In American English, periods and commas always go inside the quotation marks, but in British English the preferred style is to put periods and commas outside of the quotation marks.

 

Photo by Marcus dePaula on Unsplash.