Quote, unquote: how to correctly use quotation marks

Quotation marks (“ ”), one of the first punctuation marks you learn as a writer and one with a vast range of uses. They can indicate dialogue, a direct quote from another work, even a word as a word. With a vast range of options, also comes vast opportunity to misuse the mark. It’s too easy to use the inverted commas liberally and paint them across any instance to create emphasis or affectation. But let’s start at the beginning. 

The quotation mark can be traced back to the second century B.C. with a librarian named Aristarchus, working at the Library of Alexandria. Aristarchus wanted a way to draw attention to noteworthy text and created the diple, an arrow-shaped symbol (>). From there, it was adopted by Christians to denote the direct words of God versus the author’s writing in the Bible. Later, Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa made use of a single inverted comma to illustrate dialogue. 

I could gush on and on about the history of the quotation mark (#wordnerd), however I’ll wrap it up and you can read more here. 

With such a storied history and varied use, it can be difficult to determine proper use in your writing. In modern usage, we tend to encase words in quotation marks anytime we want to set it apart from other text. Rather than weigh down your work with unnecessary punctuation, check out these tips to simplify your writing.

When to use quotation marks

  • Dialogue
    • Use quotation marks when indicating a spoken word or sentence. In creative writing, this is most often conversations between characters. In non-fiction writing, this could be a quote pulled from a speech, written work, or casual conversation. 
  • Direct quotes
    • Any time you refer to someone else’s written or spoken work, word-for-word, use quotation marks. This helps you attribute the words to the author and avoid instances of plagiarism. If you’re not recounting their idea word-for-word, see the section on indirect quotes below. 
  • Titles
    • When citing the title of a work, you may need to use quotation marks. AP Style advises writers to include quotation marks around the titles of books, poems, speeches, TV shows, etc. MLA Style is more particular and advises the writer to use italics for longer works (books, magazines, reference materials, etc.) and quotation marks for shorter works or items that are a part of a larger work (poems, short stories, TV episode, etc.). 

When not to use quotation marks

  • Indirect quotes
    • If you’re indirectly quoting someone (i.e., sharing the essence of what was said or written but not giving a word-for-word account) you can skip the quotation marks. E.g., if recapping a speech you could write: The speaker touched on the challenges of writing without coffee. 
  • Scare or shudder quotes 
    • Also known as air quotes–these are instances in which you place quotation marks around a word or phrase to indicate disagreement or dissociation. Like air quotes, they most often make you look annoying instead of sophisticated. If you disagree or want to distance yourself from the word or phrase, just do it. No need to hide behind irony or quotes. 
  • Colloquialisms or slang
    • This one comes directly from our good friends Strunk & White. If you use a colloquialism or slang, don’t place quotation marks around the word or phrase. Using quotes with colloquialisms or slang, is similar to using scare quotes. It gives the appearance of affectation and makes it difficult for readers to connect or trust you. 

“If you use a colloquialism or a slang word or phrase, simply use it; do not draw attention to it by enclosing it in quotation marks. To do so is to put on airs…”

(STRUNK AND WHITE 34)

Like all good stories, the story of the quotation mark doesn’t end here. There are other grammar rules and usage rules on best practices for using quotation marks in your work. And knowing what rules to follow or discard, will help your writing stand out. 

Citation: Strunk, William, and E. B. White. The Elements of Style with Revisions, an Introduction, and a Chapter on Writing. Longman, 2000.


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