“Every secret of a writer’s soul, every experience of his life, every quality of his mind, is written large in his works.”
—Virginia Woolf

When Do You Use “Quotation Marks”?

A few years ago, I rented a car. Normally this wouldn’t be a memorable event. But an appalling misuse of grammar burned it into my mind, and years later, I haven’t forgotten.

When Do You Use Quotation Marks

You see, when I went to the airport to return the rental, I saw this wonderfully instructive sign.

Please leave keys in car quotation marks

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

The Correct Ways 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.

Robert Frost’s “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening” is one of my earliest memories of exposure to poetry. “How to Use Either, Neither, Or, and Nor Correctly” 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/song/TV episode/etc.

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.

Using Quotation Marks Correctly Is “Key”

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.

Do you ever run into trouble using quotation marks? Let me know in the comments!

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 Liz Bureman

Liz Bureman has a more-than-healthy interest in proper grammatical structure, accurate spelling, and the underappreciated semicolon. When she's not diagramming sentences and reading blogs about how terribly written the Twilight series is, she edits for the Write Practice, causes trouble in Denver, and plays guitar very slowly and poorly. You can follow her on Twitter (@epbure), where she tweets more about music of the mid-90s than writing.

  • 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!

        • guest

          in

  • 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!

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

  • 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?

      • Ken

        Blame it on the gremlins in the site’s program. Or a keyboard with dyslexia.

        I often write thoughts without quotes and without italics. I think it is a new way of writing.

        “He stood in front of the door. She won’t let me in.”
        But sometimes people say, you got your tenses muddled. LOL.

    • 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?

    • 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.

    • Ken

      Good point Mike. It comes down to people who write public notices, or letters should be very careful to be clear.

  • 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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  • Michelle Muhlbach

    Question… if you are writing fiction, and a character is reading a letter. Do you put quotations around the text in the letter? Example, … she picked up the note and read it, “My dearest Jane….” would you put quotes around “my dearest jane….” ? Or simply type it in italics to denote that it is apart from the rest of the narrative?

    • Firstname Lastname

      is she reading it aloud?

    • Ken

      I think if you are quoting something, then you would put it in quotes or italics.
      For example,
      The letter read: ‘Dear Sir or Madam …’
      In a world where double quotes are used for speech, I’d use single quotes for something not actually said.
      In a world where single quotes are used for direct speech (academic English), then I’d probably use double quotes for the letter.

      But you could do:
      The letter read:
      Dear Sir or Madam, …

      Indenting it, still using italics if you want.

      There’s a lot of variation in punctuation. The rule is: Be clear and understandable.

  • Brayden

    Do you add quotation marks in narrative poems?

  • Cody Nichols

    I have an important question and I can’t seem to find it anywhere. If I’m writing a story in first person, but I’m reiterating a conversation between my main character and another character, do I have to start a new paragraph for each line of dialogue when one or the other speaks or is it one paragraph because my character is telling the conversation? I know to use quotation marks for each speaker but am not sure about the rule for paragraph indentation in this case. please if anyone knows would love to find out about this. Thanks.

  • Cody Nichols

    I’m writing a story in the first person, my question isn’t so much about quotation marks as it is about paragraph indentation when my main character is reiterating a conversation between himself and another character. Because this is him telling about the conversation do I have to start a new line/paragraph for each new set of dialogue when one character speaks or is it one paragraph? Please get back to me on this as I haven’t found any answers about this so far.

    • Ken

      Perhaps you need to post a short example, Cody, to make clear what you mean.

  • Makkuro

    One question: if you’re trying to tell someone the meaning of a word, e.g. it means ____, do you have to put the meaning in quotation marks? I’ve been thinking that you don’t, but I’ve seen instances where they are inserted so I’d like to clarify once and for all – do you have to put double quotation marks in this case?

  • Judi

    When I am writing if I tell (in the past) that somebody said something, must I use quotation marks.

  • Lele Lele

    Me as a concerned citizen that passed by car rentals agency would like to “thank” this “fine” establishment. Driving up the “good” car I rented, I saw the “safety” sign of leaving your keys in the car. I was momentarily confused. Did I have to leave the keys or do I have to take them with me?

    As per “http://thewritepractice.com/when-you-use-quotation-marks/” by “professional” “grammarian” Liz Bureman, this practice is incorrect. The use of quotation marks implies sarcasm or dishonesty. One would think a “good” business such as this car rental agency would know that.

    People would get confused. I saw people scratching their heads when they saw the sign. One couple, I assume, where in a debate as to what they were suppose to do. I sink in the back of my car to listen to this “conversation.”

    “Come on Dany,” the man said. “It clearly says, “leave your “keys” in the car.”“

    The woman, Dany, I assume rolled her eyes. “Look here, see. There’s this expert I read from the internet. She knows like, quotes imply they’re not telling the truth. So we should take them with us Jon.”

    The man, Jon, groaned. “Oh, so this “expert” told you?” he said. “Fine, let’s take this stupid key with us, unlike common practice where you leave your keys in cars when your returning your cars an rental agencies. Fine.”

    Dany sighed. “You don’t have to be a jerk about it. I mean, maybe they wrote the sign wrong.”

    Jon relaxed. “This is America, everything’s wrong.”

    Dany smiled. “You’re “right”.”

    “What’s with the air-quotes?” Jon said.

    “Nothing, nothing,” Dany said. “Just we take the keys with us, just to be safe.”

    “Argh.” Jon booped his head on the steering wheel.

    See, this “happy” couple would argue about something as trivial as this. I am rather confused myself. The woman was very “persuasive”. Her dimples really swayed the argument in her favor. I should go “visit” them and set the man Jon straight.

    This is your “satisfied” customer giving you advice. Fix the damn sign. Tell us what you mean. Don’t imply. Just, use the same language as everyone else, okay?

    • Ken

      Thank you for this.

      At this point, I ‘understand’ what the main post means, even though I think the sign is a silly thing to write. It seems the car renters were being ‘clever’. What is wrong, isn’t that they are using ‘air quotes’, it is that they should have, for a public notice, said clearly what they meant. Such as, “Don’t leave your keys in the car.”

      Thanks for clearing this up.

  • Yikes! I don’t want to meet the “Keys” person. This is one of the things I am so particular about. However, I run into a snag on places such as social media. The second point you made (how to use quotation marks when citing shorter works), is one of the many grammar rules that always sticks in my head. But I find myself forced to use them incorrectly (shudder) on Social media and other places that don’t have an option to italicize larger pieces (like book titles). Quotes is the only other option I have to set the title apart from the rest of the text.

    The problems that grammar-freaks face 🙂
    Great article.

  • manilamac

    Liz, quotation marks are such a fraught subject (especially w/r//t other punctuation & common online usage that can be damaging to a writer’s SWE bona fides) that this deserves morphing into a new post. Internet, for instance, seems to have “taught” people that single quotes are some kind of minor or lesser (or non-scare/sarcasm) version of double quotes. I edit pieces often where a ‘word’ that’s being defined is relegated to single quote land.

    As for punctuation inside or outside quotes, that’s a stylebook issue. For periods & commas, some publications (NYTimes for instance) insist “always in.” While others (especially Anglophone ones, but also such Silicon Valley natives as Medium) insist “always out”. Question marks are even worse…some publications picking one of the two above blanket rules, others insisting on elaborate judgments about whether the quotation itself is a question or merely *part* of a question.
    Just about the only true uniformity to be found is that colons & semi-colons go outside the quotes…
    And none of this even considers the British norm of using single quotes first & double quotes internally. Oh well…I guess my point is that beginning writers are learning more (questionable) stuff from internet exchanges than they are from the instructors who are ‘supposed’ to be teaching them SWE. (You see what I did there…this is, after all, an online comment, even though it’s on the subject of grammar.)

  • Ken

    In academic English, writers use single and double quotes in the opposite way to the way the Americans do, and how we did.
    For a while, I dallied with this using single quotes for direct speech, but decided to revert to the former practice, which the Americans still follow, of using double quotes.

    I think the way of doing punctuation is not like spelling which is sometimes definite. Different writers punctuate differently, and no one can say which way is wrong.

    For instance you can see examples like:
    He thought that he was late.
    ‘I’m late,’ (with or without, ‘he thought’)
    Or even
    He rushed down the street. I’m late! He speeded up. (with ‘he thought’ and quotes omitted completely — I prefer this 🙂 Sometimes writers use italics here.

  • dduggerbiocepts

    I’m not so sure the sign is incorrect. This is probably a rental car return sign similar to the ones I see at airports most of the time. They want the rental car keys left in the vehicle so they can move the car from the drop off point to their rental car return processing point. The reason the word keys is in quotation marks could be that more and more cars today don’t have actual mechanical keys. A “key” historical meant a mechanical device to properly arrange mechanical lock tumblers in the proper order to either lock or unlock a locking device in the mechanical sense. Instead in recent years more and more cars have an electronic signaling devices that activates the car receivers which in turn activates the solenoids of the cars various locking devices. In the case of the sign the use of “Keys” is meant to describe all key like devices whether they are actually mechanical or electronic or other similar purposed devices. I believe that the sign employs and uses your rule #3 above correctly. The word “key” is being euphemistically.

    • Ken

      That’s how I originally read the sign, meaning leave the electronic dingbat in the car. If their key were electronic, then people would know what the sign meant. And as you say, it would be correct.

  • Jim Allen

    What are the rules regarding the use of quotation marks to designate internal thoughts or dialogue?

    • When writing internal thoughts and internal dialogue, you have a few options.

      You can use quotation marks just as you would use them for regular dialogue:
      Sally opened the fridge and stared at its bare shelves. “What can I make for dinner?” she wondered.

      You can omit the quotation marks and designate the thoughts/dialogue with italics instead:
      Sally opened the fridge and stared at its bare shelves. What can I make for dinner? she wondered.

      Both of the above examples are considered direct speech, which means you’re giving us the exact words the person said (or in this case, thought). Your third option is to rewrite the passage as indirect discourse:
      Sally opened the fridge and stared at its bare shelves, wondering what she could make for dinner.
      (This option is generally my favorite, but it may not be the best choice for every circumstance.)

      Ultimately, it comes down to a style choice: what do you prefer for the story you’re writing? Whichever you choose, be sure to keep it consistent throughout your piece. You can always sprinkle in some indirect discourse, but if you use quotation marks or italics to indicate direct thoughts in one place, be consistent everywhere else.

  • LaCresha Lawson

    I try to always live in a Grammarically correct world. But, then I had kids and became a writer….

  • Stella

    Dear anonymous car rental company,

    I am writing to inform you of a fascinating conversation I overheard the other day.

    “Hey, did you know that most people don’t know how to use quotation marks correctly?” Floating Head 1 said.

    “No way!” Floating Head 2 gasped in disbelief. “Aren’t those taught in, like, elementary school?”

    “Yes way,” Floating Head 1 sighed sadly. “I mean, yes they are taught in elementary school, but lots of people aren’t smarter than a fifth grader. That’s why they have that show, “Are You Smarter Than A Fifth Grader?”, you know?”

    “I haven’t watched that show,” Floating Head 2 observed. “Isn’t it weird that people would sign up for a show to prove that they are smarter than little kids – and what’s more, that most of them fail?”

    “Yeah, that’s reality TV for you.” Floating Head 1 agreed. “Listen, I think our totally not imaginary “conversation” has made its point, so let’s stop talking now.”

    “Please let’s,” Floating Head 2 said immediately. “The use of quotation marks might be on-point, but everything else about our “conversation” just screams “bad writing” so hard that it’s making my eyes hurt.”

    I couldn’t help but recall the conversation of my dear “friends” Floating Heads 1 and 2 when I walked past your sign today. The sign that exhorted me to “Leave my “Keys” in the car”.

    I was extremely confused and troubled as I was not able to locate any such object as “keys”, much less leave them in the car. I have house keys, gate keys, car keys, office desk keys, and piano keys, but the last time I checked, all of them were able to actually unlock their respective doors/gates/shelves, with the exception of the piano keys which nevertheless “unlock” a wonderful world of music.

    However, given that all of the above successfully unlock their respective objects, they are clearly real keys and not “keys”. I presume that by “keys”, I am intended to locate an object which does not unlock a door, but a “door”? This however does not assist me as I am also unable to locate any such object as a “door”, since all the doors I am acquainted with are real doors that actually open.

    Please give me some guidance on where I ought to find my “keys”. I was very troubled by my inability to comply with your sign, and was forced to leave my car keys (but not my car “keys”) in the car eventually. Perhaps it is my fault for being something of a stickler for rules and becoming very troubled whenever I cannot follow them to the letter. But I have told all my friends (not “friends”) about how distressing I found my inability to do as your sign instructed, and they have all unanimously agreed that they will not rent cars from you in the future. I mean, what if they turn out to be “cars”?

    Thank you for your consideration. Or depending on your response, perhaps I should say thank you for your “consideration”. As quoted in “The Manual of Uninspiring Quotes”, “Just remember that when you screw up, some people will never forgive you, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

    Regards,
    Totally not a pseudonym

  • Vincent

    Thanks, great point. I am sure I am guilty of all of these misuses at one time or another. As always not edited, just raw –

    To whom it may concern,

    Surely you must
    send your sign maker the address of the “English or Buffoonery School of Learnt (sic) English.” For sure you meant for people, myself included to leave the “Keys” in the vehicle as I know now because of the please encounter with your desk staff. It went like this:

    “Didn’t you read the sign?”

    “Why, of course and
    it clearly was written “Keys”. I assumed English was your first language and
    therefore understood you were telling us to leave the “Keys”, wink, wink, in
    the car. That is what that sign means to the rest of the English speaking or
    reading world.”

    “For your information I graduated with a degree in English.” Making use of air quotes
    when saying English. “And approved that sign myself, it means leave your Keys in the car.” Once again using air quotes, this time with the work Keys.”

    “I say my friend that I think you have missed a step or two.”

    Looking at me head down, eyes peering over his glasses, brow furrowed, finally slowly blinking his eyes as if to say; “I cannot believe I have to talk to the moron again.” He finally utters, “Hunh?”

    “I merely want to point out that what your sign says doesn’t really indicate what you want to say. I am here and I don’t think I am the only one to have brought my keys in here. How many times do you have this conversation a day?”

    “At least twenty times a day, bub.

    “Exactly the point, you don’t think you should change the sign,” using air quotes to designate sign so he will catch my drift.

    “Ummm, Yea, maybe your right, but this article on the internet, “How to use Quotation marks on signs by Alfred E. Neuman,” says “Words that you want to stand out should be in quotes.”

    “Well how can you argue with that. If “Alfred E. Neuman” says it is so, then by all means.”

    “That is exactly what I said, so now take your keys back out to the car so they can check it in,or else you will be charged an extra,” open air quote left hand, “fifty dollars,” closed air quote with right hand.”

    There is no more I can do, I withdraw for the day, but the war continues. I hope that you can see the gross injustice to the use of quotations on your sign.

    “Sincerely” yours,
    Miss Quoted

  • Bruce Carroll

    I am not going to write a “protest letter” for a “rental agency” that doesn’t know how to use quotation marks. I always try to accentuate the positive, not “chastise” the “ignorant.”
    It is possible that “keys” was a code word of some kind for those in the know. After all, it would be strange if the sign read, “Please leave a fifty-dollar bill in car.” But for those who understand how the system works (how the employees will insure no “incidental damage” is erroneously billed to the renter, for example) a sign reading “Please leave ‘keys’ in car” is perfectly acceptable. Of course, I am only speculating on the possibilities.