How do you correctly use quotation marks?

Have you ever stopped to think about quotation marks? Chances are you haven’t, but let’s dedicate a few paragraphs to them here today.

Quotation marks have several uses, but how do you use them correctly, and which type of quotation marks should you use?

Using quotation marks correctly is not as simple as it initially seems. Among other factors, it depends on their function and the language in which you’re expressing yourself.  Unlike, say, periods, quotation marks are not universal, and different types are used. For example, German uses low double commas at the beginning of the quote („example“), while French uses angled quotation marks («example») – the preferred kind in most Romance languages.

But the fun doesn’t stop there. So far, we’ve just mentioned the primary type of quotation marks: the plot thickens. There are also secondary quotation marks, which are used within quotes – and let’s not even get into whether you should use typographic (curly) or neutral (straight) ones. So, as you can see, there’s more to quotation marks than meets the eye.

How do you correctly use quotation marks?

Quotation marks are used to identify quotes, direct speech, or titles and names in a sentence. They can also be used to express irony or different meanings of a word. Block quotations do not require quotation marks.

Direct speech

Direct speech is a direct quote of someone else’s words. When quoting what someone else said or wrote, you should always capitalize the first word.

“Our earnings in the 2021 fiscal year exceeded all expectations,” said the CEO of the company.

Here, punctuation, be it a comma or a period, is placed inside the quotation marks in both British and American English.

You can also forego the quotation marks by restructuring the sentence in some cases:

He said, “Everything will be fine.”

He said that everything will be fine.

There are also what are known as “scare quotes,” which are used to denote irony.

Is this your “example”? Yes, it is.

Your “scientific method” was very flawed.

When do you capitalize quotes?

The text within quotation marks can and should be capitalized, depending on the nature of the quote. As mentioned above, you should always capitalize the first letter when quoting a complete sentence (direct speech), even if the fragment is in the middle of the sentence. However, if you’re only quoting part of the sentence, you should not capitalize the quote.

She referred to the city as “loud and hectic.”

Are commas and periods placed inside or outside quotation marks?

As a rule of thumb, punctuation is placed inside the quotation marks in American English, while this is only the case in British English when you’re quoting a full phrase of direct speech.

“I remember that particular rule,” said Paul.

Dashes, colons and semicolons usually go outside the quotation marks. Exclamation and question marks stay inside if they are part of the quote.

The officer asked him, “Did you see the vehicle?”

Single vs. double quotation marks

Aside from the placement of commas and periods, the other major difference between British and American English (when it comes to the way quotation marks are used) is that British English primarily uses single quotation marks. Double quotation marks are used secondarily, for quotes within quotes. American English uses the opposite strategy.

Quotation mark rules

Here are some rules of thumb for the proper use of quotation marks:

  • You use quotation marks for direct quotes, titles (for example, of books) and to imply other meanings (for example, sarcasm).
  • If you are quoting a complete sentence, you capitalize the text – quoting a fragment.
  • What about punctuation? Is it placed inside or outside the quotation marks? Periods and commas are always placed inside the quotation marks in American English and outside in British English. The only exception is direct speech: Here, punctuation goes inside in both American and British English.
  • Colons and semicolons are placed outside the quotation marks (unless they are part of the quote itself).

Quotation marks pose a challenge for translators and proofreaders, not just because of the different rules that apply depending on the standard, but also because quotation marks are not always considered to be as important as they are. However, details – such as consistently using the same kind of quotation marks and making sure that German quotation marks are not used in English texts – are what make texts look professional and stand out.

At EnglishBusiness, our experienced translators and proofreaders know the intricacies of English grammar and punctuation, and have a sharp eye for detail.

Contact us today to find out how we can help you polish and professionalize your texts.

This post was written by

Sebastian Cuevas

Sebastián Cuevas

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