Are you using quotation marks correctly?

In contrast to last week’s Punctuation Pointers’ star, the en rule, quotation marks (or inverted commas) are very well known and feature commonly in all kinds of writing. However, they are not always used correctly. This article will give you a quick run through of how and when (and when not) to use quotation marks in written text.

What are quotation marks used for?

  • Direct speech

  • Names of short pieces of work, e.g. songs, chapters, articles and TV episodes

  • When using a coined phrase, expression or colloquialism

  • To indicate irony

Single or double?

The choice is entirely up to you.

Traditionally, US English uses double quotation marks with nested singles, i.e. a quote within a quote:

“I was told to ‘reach for the starsby my teacher.”

UK English generally favours single quotation marks with nested doubles (except in newspapers where you will most likely see doubles):

‘I was told to “reach for the stars” by my teacher.

There’s no right or wrong here; it’s a question of personal preference. Choose one and stick with it.

Introducing direct speech

You have three choices:

1. Use a colon, e.g. I said: “It’s a beautiful day. Should we go to the seaside?”

2. Use a comma, e.g. You said, “I love the seaside!”

3. Use nothing (for a very short quote that fits within the syntax of the sentence), e.g. They said the beach was “the best in England.”

Ending direct speech

If it’s a full sentence then the standard convention is to add a comma or full stop before the final quotation mark. Unless, of course, it already ends in a question mark or exclamation mark – one punctuation mark is enough!

Mary said, “I have a little lamb. It follows me everywhere I go.”

If it is a short, incomplete phrase that fits within the structure of the sentence then many followers of the British style would put the punctuation outside the quotation marks:

She said that the lamb had “fleece as white as snow”.

In America, it is ALWAYS inside, regardless.

She said that the lamb had “fleece as white as snow.”

When not to use quotation marks (this is where it quite often goes wrong)

Don’t use quotation marks to emphasise a word or phrase. You know when you say something and use your fingers to make inverted comma shapes, like two bunny ears, to insinuate that you don’t really mean what you are saying? Well when you use quotation marks in your text, that is effectively what you are doing. Instead of emphasising the word, you are saying to the reader, I don’t really mean this. I actually mean the opposite of

this – I’m being ironic.

If you want to place emphasis on a word or phrase, try using italics instead.

Curly or straight?

Did you know that MS Word gives you the option to choose between two styles of quotation mark: straight or smart (curly)?

Personally, I prefer the aesthetic of smart quotes so make sure my default settings are set up for this by going to File Options → Proofing → AutoCorrect Options → AutoFormat As You Type → Replace as you type: straight quotes with smart quotes.

Just something to be aware of if you are cutting and pasting text from different sources is that it could end up being a bit of a mishmash mixture of the two.

If you want to keep things consistent throughout your document, you can run a quick find and replace command (Ctrl + H).


New Hart’s Rules: The Oxford Style Guide, 2nd ed. (2014) Oxford: Oxford University Press

Marsh, D. (2013) For Who the Bell Tolls: The essential and entertaining guide to grammar. London: Guardian Books and Faber & Faber Ltd