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. In modern usage, we tend to encase words in quotation marks anytime we want to set it apart from other work. Rather than weigh down your work with unnecessary punctuation, check out these tips 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.

He said, she said: Writing powerful dialogue

Learn to write strong dialogue without using adverbs or verbs to modify said.

Several years ago, I participated in a Visiting Writers Series class at Butler University that focused on reading and analyzing the works of writers and poets visiting the school or local Indianapolis area. (The class name was very literal.) As part of the class, I had the honor of introducing Elmore Leonard during his lecture at Clowes Hall.

Myself and Elmore Leonard at Butler University

I could tell you some more about the introduction (it was terrifying and wonderful and I almost threw up) but the best part of the experience was the pre-lecture dinner where myself and a couple of other writers spent time with Mr. Leonard and learning about his craft. We went to the Naked Tchopstix in Broad Ripple and he told us about the tattoos he got while serving during World War II and the importance of writing every day. What stuck with me from that conversation was his advice to never use anything other than said in dialogue. No adverbs, no adjectives, no verbs. Nothing. Just he said, she said, they said, we said, I said.

At the time I nodded enthusiastically because who was I to disagree with a writing god? Later on, as I worked privately on my own prose I felt the advice didn’t work. How is the reader supposed to know my, the writer’s intent, if I don’t use sarcastically, quietly, loudly, scoffed, growled, etc. when writing dialogue? I couldn’t make them guess–that seemed cruel and unproductive. So I pocketed the advice and continued writing dialogue as I always had: peppered with clues about my intent.

Recently, I re-read Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style and came across the advice again.

“It is seldom advisable to tell all. Be sparing, for instance, in the use of adverbs after “he said,” “she replied,” and the like…Let the conversation itself disclose the speaker’s manner or condition.”

(Strunk and White 75)

And it clicked. I, as the writer, am not supposed to tell my readers about the characters. The characters are supposed to tell the readers about themselves. HOLY HELL. This whole time I’ve been writing weak dialogue by using adverbs and verbs to forcefully drag my readers down a certain path of understanding.

Opening up the last chapter I worked on, I went through and cut every adverb and verb I could find. Which meant I was editing 95% of my dialogue. Confronted with so much slashing, I realized I was relying too heavily on the writing to tell the story instead of allowing the actions and dialogue to speak for themselves. Me, the writer, was interjecting in the story like an unwanted voiceover when I should have been an observer.

While burning and slashing all words ending in -ly or -ed it became clear I couldn’t just edit out adverbs and verbs to create good prose.

“This is good cake,” she said greedily, “I adore it.”

“Of course it is,” he said sneered, “I used to work in a Parisian bakery.”

Better without the adverbs and verbs but still not great. It took time and patience and lots of what-the-hell-am-I-doing-can-I-even-write-well? but I found some tactics to remove those life-draining adverbs and verbs to write drastically better dialogue. Here are my top three tips:

Connotation is your friend

If you’re not using adverbs to describe the way your character says something, then use the connotation of their words to convey their feelings. For example, “I like coffee” has a variety of meanings depending on how it’s said. The character could be ironic, sarcastic, enthusiastic, or anything. Instead of modifying the verb said try modifying the content of the dialogue.

Original: “I like coffee.” She said sarcastically.

Revised: “I guess I like coffee.” She said.

Show don’t tell

Already modified the content of the dialogue as much as you can? Try describing what your character is doing before, during, or after they speak. Grinning, fidgeting fingers, or slamming a door are more telling than happily, nervously, or angrily ever were.

Original: “I like coffee.” She said sarcastically.

Revised: “I like coffee,” she said, picking up the sugar dispenser and holding it above her coffee cup for several seconds.

Play off the other characters

Tapped out on using connotations and showing-not-telling? Want to mix it up? Try omitting said entirely and allow your characters to play off one another. Whether responding directly to each other’s tone or indicating it by their response. Just make sure to set up the scene beforehand so your reader knows who is speaking as they follow the back and forth.

Original:

“I like coffee.” She said sarcastically.
“You don’t like coffee,” he scoffed, “order a tea.”

Revised:

She picked up the up the sugar dispenser and held it above her coffee cup for several seconds.

“I like coffee.”

“Stop being difficult. You’ve never liked coffee. Order a tea.”

Learning to cut adverbs and verbs from my dialogue was difficult and painful process. To be honest, I still catch myself trying to sneak some adverbs or verbs in after said. But if I want strong dialogue and a strong story, I need to drop my ego at the page and let the characters speak directly to the reader. Writers are a vessel for their stories. They shouldn’t interject their thoughts anymore than the paper and ink do.

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