quotation marks

“Quotation marks should be used honestly and sparingly, when there is a genuine quotation at hand, and it is necessary to be very rigorous about the words enclosed by the marks.”

~Lewis Thomas

Quotation marks have two jobs: tell us something someone else said, and tell us the title of something short. For the titles, you could remind yourself that short works—which go inside a larger work (an article in a newspaper; a chapter in a book; a poem in a collection)—go inside quotation marks. But quotation marks can be trickier than they seem, and you also have to know where other punctuation fits around them, how to put a quote within a quote, how to quote large blocks of text, how to quote lines from songs or poems, etc.

Professional Examples

  • I read a wonderful passage in an interview with Carolyn Chute, the author of The Beans of Egypt, Maine, who was discussing rewriting: “I feel like a lot of time my writing is like having twenty boxes of Christmas decorations. But no tree. You’re going, Where do I put this? Then they go, Okay, you can have a tree, but we’ll blindfold you and you gotta cut it down with a spoon.”

~from Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird

  • Another term related to creeping normalcy is “landscape amnesia”: forgetting how different the surrounding landscape looked 50 years ago, because the change from year to year has been so gradual.

~from Jared Diamond’s Collapse:
How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed

Examples of a quote within a quote:

  • A perfume ad running in several teen magazines features a very young woman, with eyes blackened by makeup or perhaps something else, and the copy, “Apply generously to your neck so he can smell the scent as you shake your head ‘no.'”

~from Jean Kilbourne’s Deadly Persuasion:
Why Women and Girls Must Fight the Addictive Power of Advertising

  • “He was so gentle,” his father said. “I used to tell him, ‘Toughen up, boy!'”

~from Michael Kimmel’s “Gender, Class, and Terrorism,”
quoting Mohammed Atta’s father

  • What do you think when you read, “This, then, is my final doll story. Groucho Marx said that he wouldn’t want to belong to a club that would have him as a member. In the same vein, I am not so sure that most of us would want to buy a doll that ‘looked like us'” (para. 50)?

~from Stuart Greene and April Lidinsky’s introduction to Ann duCille’s
“Dyes and Dolls” in From Inquiry to Academic Writing

Example of a block quote:

  • In an African society, men were supposed to eat with their “whole mouth, wholeheartedly, and not, like women, just with the lips, that is halfheartedly, with reservation and restraint” (Bourdieu [1980] 1990, 70). Men and women in this society learned to walk in ways that proclaimed their different positions in the society:

The manly man . . . stands up straight into the face of the person he approaches, or wishes to welcome. Ever on the alert, because ever threatened, he misses nothing of what happens around him. . . . Conversely, a well brought-up woman . . . is expected to walk with a slight stoop, avoiding every misplaced movement of her body, her head or her arms, looking down, keeping her eyes on the spot where she will next put her foot, especially if she happens to have to walk past the men’s assembly. (70)

~from Judith Lorber’s “‘Night to His Day’: The Social Construction of Gender”

Examples of title formatting:

  • “On the Uses of a Liberal Education” by Mark Edmundson is an essay that was originally published in Harper’s magazine
  • “Falling Slowly” by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová won the 2008 Academy Award for Best Original Song (from the movie Once)
  • “From Identifying Issues to Forming Questions” is the fourth chapter in From Inquiry to Academic Writing
  • “The Road Not Taken,” a poem by Robert Frost, was first published in his 1916 collection titled Mountain Interval

Example of quoted lyrics/poetry:

  • A jaded woman offers in “Advice” the observation that “birthing is hard / and dying is mean,” and advises youth to “get yourself / a little loving / in between.”

~from Rita Dove and Marilyn Nelson’s “Langston Hughes and Harlem”

Example of lyrics/poetry in a block quote:

  • Against the eighty-odd dreams collected here, the refrain insists that these frustrated dreams are potentially dangerous:

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

~from Rita Dove and Marilyn Nelson’s “Langston Hughes and Harlem”

How Quotation Marks Work

There’s a lot to know, so take a deep breath and go slowly here.

Anticipatory independent clause: “Quote.”

You can choose to introduce a quote with a colon when you have a full independent clause before the colon as opposed to a tag like she says (which needs a comma).

“Main quote with a tag, ‘Secondary quote.'”

For a quote within a quote, the same rules apply as usual (tag, comma and capital letter for whole sentence quotes; none of that for partial quotes) but use single quotation marks (apostrophes) in place of the double marks for the inside quote.

“Question?” tag.

When placing a tag (e.g. she asked) after a quote, keep the tag lower case, even in the case where the quote ends in a question mark or exclamation point.

“Quote” (citation).

When including a parenthetical citation after a quote, place the end punctuation after the citation.

Block quote. (citation)

For large quotes, roughly 40+ words or more than four lines of poetry or lyrics, drop the quote down to the next line and indent the entire quote. Do not use quotation marks in this case. A citation, if included, goes after the final period.

“First line, / Second line.”

When quoting less than four lines of poetry or lyrics, use a slash with a space on each side to show the line breaks and keep the original punctuation and capitalization.

“First speaker.”

“Second speaker.”

“First speaker continuing into a second paragraph.

“First speaker’s second paragraph.”

When quoting multiple people, separate each speaker into a new paragraph. If a speaker’s quote needs to be broken into another paragraph, leave off the closing quotation mark to indicate that the quote continues on the next line.

“Chapter Title”

Titles of short works go in quotation marks, including an article in a magazine/newspaper, an episode of a show, a chapter in a book, a short story in a collection, a song on an album. If you’d find it on a Table of Contents, you should probably use quotation marks around it.

Do not, however, put your own titles in quotation marks, such as at the top of an essay. The quotation marks are only for when you are referring to another text.

Sentence ending with a “partial quote.”

Independent clause with a “partial quote”; independent clause.

Most important of all, remember that a period or comma at the end of a quote always comes INSIDE the quotation marks in America. Other punctuation (semicolons, colons, etc) after the quote goes outside unless it’s part of the quote.

Self Check

When inserting quotation marks, reread whichever section above applies to your situation to be sure that you’ve got all the nuances right.

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