Quotation Dos and Don’ts

Your Highness:

I hold a job that requires I write articles, press releases, and similar pieces in which I quote others. You’d think I’d have such matters down by now, but I’ll come clean: I never really learned the rules for using quotation marks. To complicate matters further, I’m a bit of an Anglophile—only the first of many reasons I’m your biggest fan—and I have some vague sense that quotations are handled differently Across the Pond. Is this true? And, here or there, how might I avoid embarrassing myself in this regard?

My dear Subject,

Your sincere and impassioned plea touched my heart. Quotation marks, properly deployed, are an elegant solution to an age-old problem (despite what that Irish upstart Mr. Joyce and his ilk might have had to say about such things. Yes, indeed).

But I digress. It would behoove you, as it would us all, to deploy these marks with grace and exactitude. And as you are, proclivities aside, an American, I will concentrate my responses to that effect, with asides as seem prudent. Forthwith, some basic guidelines for quotation mark usage:

  • Enclose directly quoted material in double quotation marks. Reserve single quotation marks for nested quotations. Exclaimed Penelope, “I’m so thrilled for Prunella. It’s high time she and Lord Bevingstoke-Smith were featured on a commemorative tea towel.” Replied the vicar, “It is wonderful. Do you know what Lady B. told me the other day? ‘I’m not worthy of such an honor.’ So charming.” (Note that British usage is exactly the opposite—single marks enclose double marks. Though this does make for a cleaner page, one must bow to local custom.)
  • Punctuation, as a rule, goes within quotation marks. The towels will be hand-loomed and hand-dyed by a dowager collective in Islington, which operates under the motto, “Purveyors of fine pantry linens since 1645, by appointment to HM the Queen.” “They do a lovely antimacassar, as well,” noted Penelope. (British rules on this one, though they make far more practical sense, are a bit too complex to explain here.)
  • Exceptions to the rule above: Colons, semicolons, and question marks and exclamation points that are not part of the quotation fall outside closing marks. The vicar was intrigued. Might ceremonial church garb be included in “fine pantry linens”? He could use a new surplice or two. (On this point, U.S. and British usages concur.)
  • Never use quotation marks for emphasis. The resulting effect—that of irony—will be precisely the opposite of that desired. The sign outside the dingy, ill-lit market read “‘Fresh’ Fish!” The flagrant misuse of punctuation would have undermined Harold’s confidence even further, if such a thing were possible. More appropriate choices for emphasis include bold and italicized text. (Alas, this dubious practice is common wherever English is spoken. We must transcend petty national differences to fight such errors wherever and whenever they appear.)

Follow these rules, and they shall stand you in good stead; you may wish to turn to a number of excellent online writing resources for further guidance. Now go forth and quote, confidently and well.

Yours precisely,

The Grammar Queen

By Lisa Stonestreet