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When Do You Use “Quotation Marks”

As some of you may or may not know (depending on how often you read the comments on the Write Practice), I moved to Denver at the beginning of September from the Pittsburgh area. I’m making my way around without a car, which is working out okay for me since I live close to a couple bus lines, and it’s only a twenty or thirty minute commute to my office.

But for the first few days, I rented a car to run some basic errands. When I went to the airport to return the rental, I saw this wonderfully instructive sign at the airport.

How to Use Quotation Marks Incorrectly

And this brings me to today’s grammar lesson: how and when to use quotation marks.

Quotation marks have gained new responsibilities in writing in the past fifty years. Previously, they were pretty exclusively used to mark dialogue. But with the introduction of sarcasm and facetiousness into our lives, they have found a whole new purpose.

Let’s take a look at today’s uses of quotation marks.

1. Quotation marks designate dialogue.

This is probably the first thing you learned about quotation marks in grade school. When little Johnny and Sally had their first conversation about watching Spot run, their conversation was marked by quotation marks.

“See Spot run, Johnny,” said Sally.

“Spot runs fast!” said Johnny.

“Run, Spot, run!” said Sally.

Nothing fancy about that. When someone starts talking, open the quotation marks. When they stop, close the quotation marks. Make sure your ending punctuation is inside the quotes.

2. Quotation marks designate titles of poems, articles or shorter works of writing.

Robert Frost’s “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening” is one of my earliest memories of exposure to poetry. “Hemingway’s Brush Strokes” is the most popular post on the Write Practice.

Any time you are making reference to a scholastic article, newspaper article, or anything similar, use quotation marks around the title of the article/poem/blog post.

3. Quotation marks reveal the use of sarcasm, irony, euphemisms, or slang.

It’s become a thing in American culture to use air quotes. I realize we have some overseas readers, so for all those unfamiliar, air quotes are when you take the first two fingers of your hand and curl them like bunny ears.

The dude in this Wikipedia article has it down.

Air quotes designate that what you’re saying should not be taken at face value. You are being sarcastic or lying outright. In your writing, they’re used in the same way. For example:

Alice sat on a park bench and watched the “runners” turn their heads towards her, trying to make eye contact.

The quotation marks in this example indicate that the runners aren’t running so much as checking her out, and are being less than subtle about it.

Going back to the example of the sign from the airport above, the quotes around “keys” would indicate that the rental facility doesn’t mean for you to leave your actual keys in the car, but since they obviously do want you to leave your keys, the quotes here are completely inaccurate.

Grammarphiles everywhere are outraged.

PRACTICE

Every citizen has the right to live in a grammatically correct world.

For fifteen minutes, write a letter of protest chastising the car rental agency. Make sure you use as many quotes (correctly) as you can. Be sarcastic. Cite made-up articles as “sources” (putting the titles in quotes, of course). Finally, use some dialogue just to show this “agency” the right way to use quotes.

Post your letter of protest in the comments. We’ll print them all out and send them to the car rental agency to get them to change their stinkin’ sign.

About Joe Bunting

Joe Bunting is a writer and entrepreneur. He is the author of the #1 Amazon Bestseller Let's Write a Short Story! and the co-founder of Story Cartel. You can follow him on Twitter (@joebunting).

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  • joco

    Before I begin my letter to the car company, I would like to point out to our “young” blogger, Liz, that there was no Johnny in my first grade primer, “Fun with Dick and Jane.” And, yes, I realize that I have indeed misused quotation marks in probably both of these examples because Liz is indeed young, so no sarcasm needed and my first grade primer was a book, not a poem or article. But I could classify it as what Liz called one of the “shorter works of writing.”

    I do have another question regarding quotation marks. Where is the appropriate place to include the question mark in this example?

    Have you read the recent blog post “When to Use ‘Quotation Marks’” (?)

    • epbure

      A good question, tdub. When you’re using a question mark or exclamation point, and the punctuation in question doesn’t belong to the internally quoted segment, then it is placed outside the quotation. In the case of your example, the properly punctuated phrase would be:

      Have you read the recent blog post “When to Use ‘Quotation Marks’”?

      Not the prettiest thing in the world, but generally that’s how you’d structure the punctuation.

      • Sharry

        I had a similar question about where to put the quotation marks when a comma or period is used, especially if the QMs are around words quoted from another text. I do this a lot with regulations: regulation ABC says, “…what were you thinking,” but XYZ says, “…not a chance in hell will you….” Should the comma and final period be in the QMs or outside of them?

        • epbure

          Commas and periods…okay. I’m not sure if this fully answers your question, Sharry, but I’ll give it a go. Mind you, this is the rule as far as American English goes, so I don’t know if that affects you at all.

          General rule of thumb is that commas and periods go inside quotation marks. For example:

          The Declaration of Independence guarantees citizens the right to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

          In the transcript of the Declaration, that phrase ends with a period, and it lives inside the quotation marks. However, even if the phrase didn’t, you would still end with the final punctuation inside the quotes. Example:

          Those rights that Jefferson described are ones that he considers to be “self-evident.”

          The only exception is if you’re only putting a letter or number inside the quotation marks. Then the period/comma goes outside. Example:

          It’s hard thinking of words that start with “X”, but I’m convinced that they’re better than words that start with “Q”.

          Hope that helps!

  • tdub

    Before I begin my letter to the car company, I would like to point out to our “young” blogger, Liz, that there was no Johnny in my first grade primer, “Fun with Dick and Jane.” And, yes, I realize that I have indeed misused quotation marks in probably both of these examples because Liz is indeed young, so no sarcasm needed and my first grade primer was a book, not a poem or article. But I could classify it as what Liz called one of the “shorter works of writing.”

    I do have another question regarding quotation marks. Where is the appropriate place to include the question mark in this example?

    Have you read the recent blog post “When to Use ‘Quotation Marks’” (?)

    • Liz

      A good question, tdub. When you’re using a question mark or exclamation point, and the punctuation in question doesn’t belong to the internally quoted segment, then it is placed outside the quotation. In the case of your example, the properly punctuated phrase would be:

      Have you read the recent blog post “When to Use ‘Quotation Marks’”?

      Not the prettiest thing in the world, but generally that’s how you’d structure the punctuation.

      • Sharry

        I had a similar question about where to put the quotation marks when a comma or period is used, especially if the QMs are around words quoted from another text. I do this a lot with regulations: regulation ABC says, “…what were you thinking,” but XYZ says, “…not a chance in hell will you….” Should the comma and final period be in the QMs or outside of them?

        • Liz

          Commas and periods…okay. I’m not sure if this fully answers your question, Sharry, but I’ll give it a go. Mind you, this is the rule as far as American English goes, so I don’t know if that affects you at all.

          General rule of thumb is that commas and periods go inside quotation marks. For example:

          The Declaration of Independence guarantees citizens the right to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

          In the transcript of the Declaration, that phrase ends with a period, and it lives inside the quotation marks. However, even if the phrase didn’t, you would still end with the final punctuation inside the quotes. Example:

          Those rights that Jefferson described are ones that he considers to be “self-evident.”

          The only exception is if you’re only putting a letter or number inside the quotation marks. Then the period/comma goes outside. Example:

          It’s hard thinking of words that start with “X”, but I’m convinced that they’re better than words that start with “Q”.

          Hope that helps!

  • http://bridgetstraub.com/ bridgetstraub.com

    I just want them to adjust the sign to have it say: Leave “Keys”
    (wink, wink)
    In Car

  • http://bridgetstraub.com/ bridgetstraub.com

    I just want them to adjust the sign to have it say: Leave “Keys”
    (wink, wink)
    In Car

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  • Dawn

    Liz,

    What about when a character is thinking. I have read a couple of books where quotation marks were not used to show the words of a characters thoughts and then some that have used quotation marks. Which is correct?

    “Not again!” she thought as she nearly tripped over the pile of laundry in the middle of Herr son’s bedroom.

    Or

    Not again! she thought as she nearly tripped over the pile of laundry in the middle of here son’s bedroom.

    • Dawn

      Ugh! One must never be too quick to hit the send button! I apologize to one and all for the many grammar, spelling, and punctuation mistakes I made in that post. It is rather late. Can I blame it on being too tired?

    • http://goinswriter.com/ Jeff Goins

      I’ve wondered the same thing. I BELIEVE italics are appropriate here. A cursory search on Google seems to justify this.

  • Dawn

    Liz,

    What about when a character is thinking. I have read a couple of books where quotation marks were not used to show the words of a characters thoughts and then some that have used quotation marks. Which is correct?

    “Not again!” she thought as she nearly tripped over the pile of laundry in the middle of Herr son’s bedroom.

    Or

    Not again! she thought as she nearly tripped over the pile of laundry in the middle of here son’s bedroom.

    • Dawn

      Ugh! One must never be too quick to hit the send button! I apologize to one and all for the many grammar, spelling, and punctuation mistakes I made in that post. It is rather late. Can I blame it on being too tired?

    • http://goinswriter.com/ Jeff Goins

      I’ve wondered the same thing. I BELIEVE italics are appropriate here. A cursory search on Google seems to justify this.

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  • Mike Young

    I came across this ‘article’ while looking for information on using air quotes. I’d suggest that with different kinds of electronic remotes and locking devices being used for cars now, you might also need an unlocking device along with the key, or there might not actually be a traditional key at all. The use of “Keys” on the sign might have been quite intentional.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=868335572 Mike Young

    I came across this ‘article’ while looking for information on using air quotes. I’d suggest that with different kinds of electronic remotes and locking devices being used for cars now, you might also need an unlocking device along with the key, or there might not actually be a traditional key at all. The use of “Keys” on the sign might have been quite intentional.

  • Derek

    Are the quotation marks necessary in the following sentence?
    Please click on “Jump to next page” link to continue navigating the article.

  • Derek

    Are the quotation marks necessary in the following sentence?
    Please click on “Jump to next page” link to continue navigating the article.

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