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How to use quotation marks without “putting on airs”

The main use for quotation marks, of course, is to differentiate quotations and previously published material from an author’s original text. (When citing text that is three lines or longer, however, the standard convention is to offset and indent the excerpt without using quotation marks.)

Quotation marks also are used when referring to a word or phrase as the word or phrase itself and not what it means. For example:

USAID does not like its contractors to use the title “commercial sex workers” when referring to women who have sex for money because it believes the phrase destigmatizes the profession.

As for punctuation, periods and commas go inside the closing quotation mark regardless of whether or not they are part of the original quote. Unless they are in the text being quoted, however, colons, semicolons, question marks, and exclamation points belong outside of the closing quotation mark.

(Those rules for punctuation are for American English; in British style only punctuation that is part of the original quote goes inside the quotation marks. Yes, British style makes a lot more sense. But my website stats show that you probably aren’t British, so you’re stuck having to abide by the confusing and illogical American way.)

If a footnote or endnote accompanies the text, the reference number goes outside of the closing quotation mark.

And only use single quotation marks if text within a quotation needs a quotation mark.

Steve started to get jittery. He had just overheard his mom tell his dad, “And then Danny ran in and told me ‘Steve said a word you shouldn’t say.'”

Finally, do not use quotation marks for colloquialisms or buzzwords. According to The Elements of Style, “To do so is to put on airs, as though you were inviting the reader to join you in a select society of those who know better.” And no one wants to be thought of as “putting on airs.”

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8 Responses to How to use quotation marks without “putting on airs”

  1. Melody August 31, 2007 at 12:59 pm #

    I have a question concerning quotation marks. What does it mean or signify when someone puts quotation marks around their name?

    Thank you, Have a beautiful day!

  2. Zach Everson August 31, 2007 at 11:04 pm #

    Do you have an example, Melody? I don’t think I’ve ever seen that situation.

  3. Melody September 1, 2007 at 11:20 pm #

    I have this friend who puts his name as Coach “JJ” on all his paperwork. I’m just curious why he uses the quotation marks, Are they misused or is he trying to signify his name in some term? I want to thank you for responding to my e-mail.

    I hope you have a beautiful night!

  4. Zach Everson September 3, 2007 at 3:30 pm #

    There’s no reason to use quotation marks there, Melody. I think he’s trying to note that “JJ” is a nickname and not his real name.

  5. Alecia October 8, 2007 at 8:49 am #

    Hello Zack: I wrote a short story less then one page and I included comments that both myself and another person said directly. Is it proper to put quotations around the words that I said? I think I heard something about never quoting your self? Here are a few examples:

    Example One:
    Then in a very calm and peaceful voice I said: Calling someone a fag or a dyke is exactly like calling someone a Nigger.

    Example Two:
    I went on and said when you use words like this, you hurt people’s feelings, you harm people souls and you break people’s hearts.

    Example Three:
    My only response was that yes it is wonderful how we can learn to love each other every day.

    Thanks for the help.

    – alecia

  6. Zach Everson October 8, 2007 at 9:20 pm #

    Alecia, in your first example, I would use quotation marks as it is a direct quote. The other two examples strike me as indirect quotations; hence you would not need quotation marks.

    One great aspect of writing fiction, however, is that you can really do whatever you want. Some authors (James Joyce and William Faulkner come to mind) didn’t bother with quotation marks at all.

  7. Christine July 25, 2012 at 7:32 pm #

    Zach I am somewhat frightened that I remember blogs you wrote in 2007. But so it is. And here’s a related, belated link:

  8. Zach Everson July 26, 2012 at 7:48 am #

    Hilarious—both that you recalled this post and the link.