Professor Punctuation Takes on Quotation Marks

Back in May 2012, we were introduced to Professor Punctuation on Amazing Words Wednesday when she covered the proper usage of the apostrophe.

cool teacher
Professor Punctuation

Thankfully, she’s returned to explain the proper use of quotation marks. Please welcome back our favorite word nerd professor, Professor Punctuation!

PP: Man, it’s been too long–like we left off with an ellipsis. But hey, I’m here now. So while I sip my cup of doctored java, let’s talk quotation marks.

Quotation marks seem pretty straightforward most of the time. You want to say something, you put the dialogue in the middle of quotation marks:

“Where does your tattoo say?” he asked.

“It reads, ‘I hate tattoos,'” she said. “You know, irony.”

Simple, huh?

What gets confusing is when you introduce other punctuation along with quotation marks, or you start using quotation marks for titles, or you indicate a wink-wink meaning with quotation marks–like using air quotes if you were conversing. Let’s take a look at these instances.

Quotation Marks with Other Punctuation. The rules are a little different with American and British usage. I’ll cover the Americans and let the Limeys take care of themselves. (They’re more than capable.) As usual, we had to make it a little complicated.

So pay attention closely, or just bookmark this page for later reference–especially that bleary-eyed guy in the back.

Commas and periods always go inside the quotation marks, whether or not they were part of the original quote.

“A true friend is someone who lets you have total freedom to be yourself,” Jim Morrison (comma not in original quote)

Jesus said, “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” (periods originally inside quote)

Colons and semicolons won’t appear at the end of a quote, so they go outside the quotation marks.

I recited, “There’s no place like home”: that famous quote from The Wizard of Oz.

Our biology teacher wanted us to read “The Life Cycle of the Plant”; instead, I cracked open my copy of The Catcher in the Rye.

Question marks, exclamation points, and dashes go inside when part of the original and outside when not.

“O happy dagger!” Juliet said.

Who said, “To be or not to be”?

Quotation Marks with Titles. Quotation marks are used to enclose titles of short works–such as short stories, poems, TV episodes, speeches, etc. But NOT longer works, such as books, television series, and films, which should be italicized.

Sometimes it’s hard to tell where a title would fall. For example, when an Oscar speech starts out with the hope that its title could fit in quotes and moves into the world of italics before someone finally, mercifully, sends the smiling girl out to collect the verbose award winner and walk away to the sound of goodbye music. Or when your start writing your brilliant epic novel and suddenly realize that the story worth telling is only about 10,000 words long after all.

But most of the time, we know what would get quotation marks and what would get italics (or in the past, underlining).

“The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost

“Once More, with Feeling” from Buffy, the Vampire Slayer

But NOT “War and Peace” by Leo Tolstoy or “Saw XLIII” (what number are they on?)

Quotation Marks as Wink-Wink. Sometimes quotation marks are used to emphasize an ironical use of words. For instance, if your good-for-nothing, drug-dealing cousin offers you some “donuts” with air quotes, he ain’t selling you donuts. Tell him you get high on life and help him find the nearest rehab center.

The quotation marks in such usage indicate a hidden meaning. The word in quotations is a euphemism, substitution, or even the opposite of what the speaker/writer wants you to understand.

People, however, are starting to throw out quotation marks all over the place like they are confetti from your New Year’s party. Thus, this sign is confusing.

Is “No Sitting” really the intended meaning? Did we just get a wink-wink message? Quotation marks here are unnecessary. The sign makers could have used NO SITTING to highlight their point.

Congress is using some “creative” math to work out the issues.

Joan Rivers had some “work” done.

But NOT to the police officer who stopped you: Yeah, there’s just “medication” in that bag.

Quotation Marks with Understood Phrases. One last tip about saying hello, thank you, and other typical phrases in a sentence. There is no need to include quotation marks in a sentence like, “I sent a thank you note.” Yes, the note said “thank you” somewhere in it, but this meaning is less of a quotation and more of a description. The quotation marks just get in the way.

I’m calling to say hello.

We wish you a Merry Christmas.

But NOT: They send their “best wishes” to all of you.

Now that I’ve had a lotta latte and we’ve covered the basics, I need to head home. My main man is waiting for me so that I can “research” my romance novel, Hippie Hubbies Are Heavenly.

JG: Well, on that note I guess we’ll take leave of Professor Punctuation. Our heartfelt thanks for giving us another lesson on the proper use of punctuation.

What other questions do you have for Professor Punctuation about the use of quotation marks? Do you get tripped up anywhere? What do you think about the overuse of unnecessary quotation marks?

Sources: The “Blog” of “Unnecessary” Quotation Marks; The Elements of Grammar by Margaret Schertzer; Chicago Manual of Style

12 thoughts on “Professor Punctuation Takes on Quotation Marks

  1. I find overuse of quotation marks almost as annoying as apostrophes in words that are plural and not possessive! But quotes can be confusing, especially if you’re a programmer, which has still different rules for them.

    I didn’t know “ironical” was a word LOL.

  2. Hi Julie. Very good points. 🙂

    I have an objection, though, to the use of inside quotations in dialogues.
    Quote: “It reads, ‘I hate tattoos,’” she said.
    I wouldn’t use it. Dialogues’ quotations should show change of voice (like being ironical 🙂 ), emphasis on something or distinguish an item we can’t actually see. But not a quote. The comma after “It reads” is sufficient and correct. In general, we pause when we quote something verbally.
    However, for a drug dealer’s speech (to use your example above), it would be “Brought the “donuts” you asked for.” to show the drugs which we can’t see.

    1. Your objection compelled me to look it up! I couldn’t find specific rules for that, but I did look for common usage by journalists and other writers. I saw it both ways–with or without quotes–so maybe one could make a case for either. I do tend to prefer simplicity, unless meaning is at risk. So I’d agree that I could take those single quotes out. Thanks!

  3. I get tripped up sometimes with the understood phrases. Sometimes it seems like they need quotes, and sometimes it doesn’t! Quick question though – when using single quotes, they follow the same guidelines, right? Particularly when it comes to punctuation?

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