The Straight Dope on Quotation Marks (and Using Punctuation with Them)

I did one of these “straight dope” posts (on semicolons) last month, and it went over pretty well, so—voila!—it’s now going to be a regular feature here on the blog!  (Aren’t you impressed that I have the power to do that?)

“The Straight Dope” highlights common grammatical errors*—so you can stop looking like an idiot when you do these things incorrectly.** 🙂

All right, kids.  Quotation marks! You’re going to have to stop pissing me off with these things.

"I've turned the moon into what I like to call a 'death star.'"

I could enter into a huge discussion about all the uses, but I’ll focus on where I most commonly see hiccups—call me a pessimist for focusing on the negative.  (However, I think it’s better not to confuse you about the stuff you’re already doing correctly!)

Q.: Do I use quotation marks with titles?

A.: SOMETIMES.

Only use quotation marks in the titles of short works (songs, poems, short stories, etc.).

Ex:  “Gettin Jiggy Wit It” is one of my favorite songs evaaaaar!  (Don’t judge me. Click here.)

Q.: When do I use the *single* quotation marks?

A.:  Unless you’re using that same symbol as an apostrophe (and you’d BETTER be using the one that curls the right way!), the only time to use “single quotation marks” is when you’re quoting something or mentioning a title (one that needs to be punctuated using quotation marks) within a quotation.

Ex:  “‘Gettin Jiggy Wit It’ is one of my favorite songs ever,” said Ricki.

Ex:  “She said, ‘I can’t believe I even associate with you!'”

Q.:  Do quotation marks go inside or outside commas, periods, question marks, exclamation points, and colons?

A.:  This one’s a little more complicated.

Commas and periods go INSIDE closing quotation marks pretty much ALWAYS.

Ex:  “I’m not sure if you really need an example of this,” Ricki said.

Ex:  “We’re glad you gave us one anyway.”

Ex:  Ricki says “the bomb.com,” “faboo,” and “fabulosity.”

With question marks and exclamation points, IT VARIES.  If they are part of a quote or spoken dialogue, then the closing quotation mark goes OUTSIDE.  If they are not part of a quotation or within dialogue, they go INSIDE.  You must look at the whole sentence to determine the correct context.

Ex:  They were sick of her ridiculous “vocabulary”!

Ex:  Didn’t they find it to be “fantabulous”?

Ex:  “Why can’t you just stop?” you ask.

Ex:  “I can’t help it!” I exclaim.

With colons, the closing quotation mark ALWAYS GOES INSIDE.

Ex:  These are some the “words” from her ridiculous “vocabulary”: “whatevs,” “awesomesauce,” and “ginormous.”

Questions, class?

*Please note: Unless otherwise specified, I am giving the proper grammar and formatting rules according to Chicago style.

**I get it: Correct grammar is not always obvious!  A lot of the reason we err is because we’re constantly seeing different styles and formats in our everyday lives—newspapers, magazines, (God help us) blogs, etc., all use different styles.

We’re taught basic grammar in grade school. When you move into junior high and high school, teachers start throwing “MLA formatting” at us.  And, depending on your area of study in college, you could be facing APA formatting, AP style, Chicago style . . . ahh!

“Why does it matter?” my students would ask.

“Because you (should) want to communicate in a clear and concise way,” I’d say.  And then I’d bury my face in my palms.

I wish this video (award-winning YA author John Green’s answer to that annoying question) had been available when I was teaching.  It would have saved a lot of time—and probably my liver.  I know I linked to this a few weeks ago, but watch it again.  (It’s definitely worth a click if you missed it, BTW.)

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8 thoughts on “The Straight Dope on Quotation Marks (and Using Punctuation with Them)

  1. In high school, I was taught APA, and then in college, I used MLA, and then in grad school, in my editing courses, I was taught to use Chicago Manual. Talk about confusing a person. But for the most part, I stick with Chicago now. Except, imagine my surprise when we moved to England and discovered that in addition to the meanings of words being different, their grammar rules were also different. Sheesh.

    But anyway, excellent illustration of the use of quotation marks!

  2. Minor point, I know, what with the events of 1776 and all, but it’s probably worth pointing out that these rules apply to US English only.

    In the Queen’s English (like they use in England), the clause defining punctuation marks go “outside”, like so. Which to my mind makes much more sense. The comma is not part of the quote, so why should it be quoted?

    • Yes, TD – you are correct! My little “disclaimer” toward the bottom of the post specifies that it’s specific to Chicago style, but I probably should also have said that that’s a U.S. thing.

      But I completely agree–it’d be much easier and would make a lot more sense the “Queen’s English” way!

      Thanks for the comment!

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