Let’s start with the obvious: Quotation marks show when a character is speaking aloud.
- “Meet me at the orgy,” said Cristóbal. “I’ll be under the third owl on the left.”
|“Meet me at the orgy,” said Cristóbal. “I’ll be under the third owl on the left.”
Don’t use quotation marks after the word that. Describing what someone said (called indirect discourse) is not the same as quoting them.
- Ziyi said that the end of the world would have to wait.
(See also How to Punctuate Dialogue.)
Nesting Quotation Marks
What if you need to put quotation marks around something that’s already in quotation marks—say, a word within a piece of dialogue? In that case, put your word in single quotation marks, keeping your dialogue in double quotation marks as usual. If you need yet another set of quotation marks inside your single marks, use doubles again, and continue to alternate until you run out of room or run mad, whichever comes first.
- “I just saw him giving his ‘sister’ a snog!” snapped Sybil.
- “The word waning here means ‘dim, and making everything look extra-creepy.’ ” (Lemony Snicket, The Austere Academy)
Literary (or Not-So-Literary) Quotations
That last sentence is an example of another common use of quotation marks: to quote a work of literature—or a blog post, or a bit of graffiti.
- As Douglas Adams once said, “I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.”
However, if your quote is an epigraph (a quotation at the beginning of a book or chapter), you don’t need quotation marks. The same is true of a long quotation that’s indented from the rest of the text:
As they passed Gertrude raised her head and directed towards the young nobleman two eyes so eye-like in their expression as to be absolutely circular, while Lord Ronald directed towards the occupant of the dogcart a gaze so gaze-like that nothing but a gazelle, or a gas-pipe, could have emulated its intensity. (Stephen Leacock, “Gertrude the Governess,” Nonsense Novels)
|Stephen Leacock’s Nonsense Novels (1911) includes “Gertrude the Governess.”
Titles of Works: Quotation Marks or Italics
Use quotation marks for titles of articles, essays, short stories, poems, songs, and television episodes.
- “Law and Disorder” is the infamous Brady Bunch episode in which the actor who played Greg was stoned during filming.
Most other titles—like those of books, movies, and TV shows—are written in italics (more on that here). The Associated Press uses quotation marks instead of italics, but you don’t need to worry about AP style unless you’re a journalist. Certain media don’t allow italic fonts—Twitter, for instance—and in that case you may use quotation marks as a substitute, but only if italics are unavailable.
|“Law and Disorder” is the infamous Brady Bunch episode in which the actor who played Greg was stoned during filming.
Coming up in Part Two: Sneer quotes, punctuation soup, and common errors to avoid