How to Use Quotation Marks Correctly

Wednesday, March 223 min read

Almost everyone — including professional writers, English teachers, and other people with formal grammar training — will occasionally struggle with proper punctuation. Periods end a sentence, and question marks end a question, but what about other punctuation marks? Quotation marks, for example, serve multiple purposes. Most commonly, they call out words of spoken dialogue or designate a direct quote. As such, they’re a handy punctuation mark to have in your writing toolbox. They make it clear when we’re reading prose and when different voices are interjecting. However, there are several other ways to use quotation marks correctly.

Direct Quotes or Spoken Dialogue

Since quotation marks indicate when a person is speaking, they’re beneficial to use when writing books or newspaper articles. In factual accounts, a writer can quote a source to show their views on a subject:

Example: “By next year, we’ll have a state-of-the-art school,” Principal Harlow said.

In fiction, similarly, quotation marks set off dialogue:

Example: “Did you find any clues?” the housekeeper asked.

“No,” the detective replied. “Unless you count these dirty footprints.”

Quotation marks can also surround a character’s internal dialogue. However, they aren’t needed when paraphrasing what someone said. For example, the paraphrased sentiment, “He asked if they had any vanilla ice cream,” is acceptable without quotation marks.

Punctuating Quotations

When using direct quotes, it’s important to remember that most punctuation associated with the quote (such as periods and commas) should go inside the quotation marks.

Example: “I’m making dinner,” her mother said, “and I expect you to be there.”

If the quotation includes a question, the question mark should be inside the quotation marks. But if the whole sentence that includes the quote is a question, it should go outside of the closing mark. The same is true of exclamation points.

Examples: He asked, “Are you going to the game?”

Does that coupon say “buy one get one free”?

Single quotation marks (that look like apostrophe marks) are used to replace quotation marks when there is a quote within a quote.

Example: “Residents were saying, ‘We want an updated pool,’ so we responded accordingly,” the mayor explained.

Capitalizing Quotes

When quoting a complete sentence, capitalize the beginning of the quote, no matter where it appears within the sentence.

Example: Donna asked, “Who is going to the mall on Tuesday?”

However, if the quote is part of a complete sentence, the first letter of the quoted phrase doesn’t need to be capitalized. The same applies to short words or phrases that work as part of the sentence and don’t stand out as separate, quoted passages.

Examples: My mother often reminds me that “children are the future.”

The film critic described the movie as “a rom-com heavy on the ‘com.’”

Other Uses for Quotation Marks

Scare Quotes

“Scare quotes” are quotation marks placed around a word or phrase to show that this isn’t how the word or phrase is typically used, or to call attention to it, or demonstrate some doubt. There aren’t strict grammatical rules for how to use scare quotes, but they’re more of a stylistic choice.

Examples: The rat wasn’t much of a “pet.”

My “assistant” forgot to update my calendar.

Quoted Titles

Depending on the style guide, the titles of creative works such as songs, poems, articles, movies, books, and works of art might appear in quotation marks. According to the Associated Press Stylebook, the titles of books should appear in quotation marks. However, The Chicago Manual of Style says they should be italicized. (On Word Genius, we do the latter.) The important rule here is to pick a style and stick with it throughout the piece or publication.

Examples: Can you play “You’re So Vain”?

The class read the poem “Fire and Ice” by Robert Frost.


Quotation marks can also be used to set off nicknames. However, if the nickname becomes the name the famous person is mainly known by, then quotes are no longer needed.

Examples: Harriet “Moses” Tubman

“Shoeless” Joe Jackson

Alexander the Great

Featured image credit: winnond/ iStock

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