P6: Using Quotation Marks


  1. Properly place quotation marks around dialogue and borrowed words.
  2. Appropriately use quotation marks with titles of short works, definitions, words used in special ways, and original words.
  3. Correctly incorporate other punctuation with quotations.

Quotation marks are used to mark dialogue, to indicate words that are borrowed, to emphasize certain details, and to help when giving credit for written works.

The following  video from Howcast explains how and why quotation marks are used:

“How to Use Quotation Marks.” Created by Howcast, License: All Rights Reserved. License Terms: Standard YouTube License ©

Using Quotation Marks to Signal Dialogue and Borrowed Words

Quotation marks are a key component of written dialogue. All words of a dialogue must be enclosed within quotation marks to indicate that these words are the exact words of the speaker.

  • The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience, Atticus said.
    • When you write about or summarize spoken words rather than presenting them as dialogue, you should not put quotation marks around them since you are not necessarily saying that they are the exact words the person said.
  • Jem once said that Boo’s dad was the meanest man alive.
    • As with dialogue, you also should use quotation marks to mark the exact words that you borrow from someone else.
  • About Harper Lee’s first interview since 1964, Paul Harris writes, Lee has regularly turned down every interview request for decades but now, aged 79, has been tempted out of her shell by the University of Alabama.

(Paul Harris, “Mockingbird Author Steps out of Shadows,” The Observer, Feb. 6, 2006.)

An exception to using quotation marks around borrowed words is that lengthier quotations of others’ work (those of more than four lines of text) are set in indented block format for the sake of easier readability. Also, if you paraphrase another’s ideas in your words, you need to cite the source of the ideas, but you should not use quotation marks since the words are your own. Use single quotation marks around a quotation within a quotation.


According to Paul Harris, Lee did have warm words about the screenplay of her book, which was turned into the hit film starring Gregory Peck in the 1960s. I think it is one of the best translations of a book to film ever made, she said.

(Paul Harris, “Mockingbird Author Steps out of Shadows,”The Observer, Feb. 6, 2006.)

Using Quotation Marks to Enclose Titles of Short Works

Italics indicate titles of full-length books and other lengthy, completed works. To separate short works from these longer works, short works are enclosed in quotation marks rather than being placed in italics. Some examples of short works that should be included in quotation marks are articles in periodicals, book chapters or sections, essays, newspaper and magazine articles and reviews, short poems and stories, song titles, titles of television episodes, and titles of unpublished works, such as dissertations, papers, and theses.


Use italics for full-length books: I first read To Kill a Mockingbird in eighth grade.

Use quotation marks for short works: In A Child Shall Lead Them, Michael Richardson suggests that Lee presents justice through the innocent eyes of a child in an effort to show its true form.

Using Quotation Marks to Identify Definitions

Using quotation marks is the accepted technique for identifying definitions that are used in running text.

Characters in To Kill a Mockingbird visit the apothecary, which means drugstore.

Using Quotation Marks to Draw Attention to Words Used in a Special or Original Way

Quotation marks can help clarify that a word is being used in an unusual rather than in a straightforward manner. Without the quotation marks, readers might get a totally different meaning from a sentence.

  • That course was challenging.
  • That course was challenging. (Putting the word challenging in quotation marks lets us know that the sentence is probably using irony to say that the course was not challenging at all.)

If you create an original word to fit your specific needs, put the word in quotation marks to indicate to readers that the word is not a standard word.

  • Many accounts suggest that Harper Lee was very Scout-like.

Whether to use these more informal ways of punctuating with quotation marks depends on your audience since it is not formal to use quotation marks to draw attention to words.

Using Other Punctuation with Quotation Marks


Rule: Put question marks and exclamation marks inside the quotation marks if the marks relate directly and only to the text within quotation marks. If, on the other hand, the marks relate to the whole sentence, put the marks outside the quotation marks.

  • Example 1: A girl in the back of the room asked, What character did Robert Duvall play?”
  • Example 2: Did Mary Richards really make it after all”?

Rule: Periods and commas always go inside the quotation marks, even if the quotation marks are only around the last word in the sentence.

  • Example 1: Scout asked Jem how old she was when their mother died, and Jem answered, Two.”
  • Example 2: Even as an adult years later, Scout was likely to say that the summer of the trial lasted forever,” due to the many life lessons she learned.

Rule: Place colons and semicolons outside quotation marks.

  • Example 1: I remember my first impression after reading Frost’s Death of a Hired Man”: confusion.
  • Example 2: We had tickets to see the one-act play Masks”; however, the blizzard hit just as we were trying to leave.

Guarding against Using Unneeded Quotation Marks

Special word usage, such as irony and made-up words, are placed in quotation marks. But do not use quotation marks just to make regular-use words stand out.


When Jem met Dill, Jem said that Dill was awfully puny. (The word puny should not be put in quotation marks since it is a standard word being used with its straightforward meaning.)

If you choose to use slang or colloquialisms, do not give a sense that you are apologizing for the words by putting them inside quotation marks. Choose the slang words and colloquialisms you want to use and let them stand on their own.


Calpurnia was down-to-earth. (Do not put quotation marks around down-to-earth.)

Adapted from Chapter 18 “Punctuation” in Writer’s Handbook v 1.0 used according to Creative Commons CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

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