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…”


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.

9 words you’ve been using wrong this whole time

No matter how advanced a grammarian you are, it’s helpful to revisit the rules. Check out these 9 grammar rules you may not be using.

“Only the writer whose ear is reliable is in a position to use bad grammar deliberately.”

Strunk and White 77

Whether you’re an advanced content strategist or fledgling word nerd, it’s easy to forget about one of the primary building blocks of our craft: grammar. I recently re-read Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style and was surprised at how many grammar and style rules I broke on a daily basis.

While I’m working on cleaning up my style in the background, here’s 9 words that are commonly misused in modern writing.

1. And/Or

I am guilty of using this in nearly 80% of my work emails. It (seemed to) function so nicely as a catch-all for situations where things could include or exclude certain variables. But as Strunk and White point out, it’s a sloppy shortcut that damages the clarity of the sentence. Does it include both? Or one or the other? Pick and or or (say that 3x fast) and leave the backslash in the editing trash.

Original: The party may include wine and/or whiskey.

Improved: The party may include wine or whiskey or both.

Also improved: The party may include wine and whiskey.

2. Among vs. Between

It had never occurred to me that these two words weren’t interchangeable. Instead I relied on my ear to determine which one I would use when indicating how people or things were involved with one another. However, it turns out there is a difference!

Among is used when describing the connection of two or more persons or things. E.g., the coffee cups were divided amongst the four baristas.

Between is used when describing the connection of just two persons or things. E.g., the macchiato was split between the husband and wife.

3. Comprise

The definition of comprise is “to contain or include”. So it’s imperative that you pay attention to how it affects the noun before it. A coffee shop is comprised of (includes) writers but writers do not comprise (contain) a coffee shop.

4. Disinterested  

Okay, this one in particular jumped out at me because, ladies and gents, I’ve been using it incorrectly for years! Disinterested means impartial or unbiased. But in everyday speech we tend to use it to mean “uninterested”. It makes sense–the prefix dis- is means “not”. Dislike=don’t like. Discontent=not content.

But this is not the case and you should only use disinterested when you want to say impartial or unbiased.

5. Flammable vs. Inflammable

Here’s a curveball for you–these are synonyms. That’s right! Flammable and inflammable both mean “to catch on fire.” It gets confusing because the prefix in– typically means “in, on, or not”. However, the word inflammable doesn’t use this prefix. It derives from the Latin word inflammare–to flame. If you’re a word nerd like me, you can read more about the history of the word on Merriam-Webster.

Regardless of your word nerd status, if you’re trying to say “can’t easily catch on fire” try incombustible or nonflammable.

6. Less

Very similar to the above note on Among vs. Between, less is more precise than just “not as many as before”. You should use the word less when referring to quantity and use the word fewer when referring to a specific number.  Here’s an example for each:

Less: There were less doughnuts than last time.

Fewer: There were three fewer doughnuts than last time.

7. Nauseous. Nauseated. Nausea.

You may have heard this one before–it’s one of those grammar rules that gets touted as an example of how much everyday language can deviate from a strict definition. Whether you’re on #teamcolloquialism or #teamformal, it’s important (and interesting!) to know the difference. So let’s break it down:

Nauseous→ causing nausea or disgust

Nauseated→ to become affected with nausea  

Nausea→ a stomach distress with an urge to vomit

So when we say, “I’m nauseous” we’re actually saying “I’m causing nausea or repulsion”. Doesn’t quite work right? Unless you are in fact doing something to cause repulsion. Instead say or write, “I’m nauseated” or “I have nausea”.

8. One

This one is perhaps antiquated, however it does pop up every so often. When using the word one to mean “a person” don’t follow up with a pronoun. Instead substitute the pronoun for one again. Here’s an example to clarify:

Typical sentence: One must always order their coffee black

Better sentence: One must always order one’s coffee black

Best sentence: You should always order your coffee black

Side note: the best sentence in that set of examples is so named because it uses an active voice and is more direct.

9. People

As people, we use this word almost every day. But did you know it also has a more precise meaning than just “several humans”? The word people means a collection of humans typically bound by a common interest. In most cases it has political connotations such as The People’s Republic of China.

When you’re trying to express a certain number of humans, it’s best to use persons. Here’s a good visual from Strunk and White:

“If of ‘six people’ five went away, how many people are left? Answer: one people.”  (Strunk and White 56)

No matter how advanced a grammarian you are, it’s helpful to revisit the rules. Because sometimes our ears and common sense deceive us. And the above is not an exhaustive list. Grab Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style and you’ll see the above is the only start. Happy writing!

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

The Great Oxford Comma Debate

Give me ALL the Oxford Commas

One time, my friend messaged me to ask if she should use an Oxford comma when listing out projects on a resume. As a student of journalism, she came of age in AP Style and that comma before the conjunction was a big faux pas. I spent the next 26 minutes composing a verbose, but well-meaning pontification on how an Oxford or serial comma should always be used. No matter what. A month later she got me this →

Which leads us to the question: is an Oxford comma necessary? Or was my spiel a little too extra?

If you’re new to the Oxford comma debate, an Oxford comma or serial comma is that final comma in a list right before the conjunction. Example:

I like coffee, yorkies, murder mysteries, and tacos.

Now, MLA, Chicago, Strunk and White, and various government and academic publications demand its use. On the flip side, AP and The New York Times oppose use of that last comma. The arguments for and against usually go like this:

Promotes clarityUnnecessary if conjunctions are used properly
Offers efficiency in reading Takes up valuable space
Reaffirms the last two items in a list are separate entities Pretentious (i.e., too academic and not colloquial)

So to comma or not to comma? The answer is: it’s a stylistic preference. If you’re copywriter or a ghost writer, it’s important to stick to your employer’s preferred style guide to maintain brand consistency. If you’re writing for a personal project or your employer has no preference, the decision is all yours.

My take: if it’s within your discretion, you should always use an Oxford comma. Besides the reasons in the above #TeamOxfordComma column, an Oxford comma also promotes visual consistency and modernity.

As writers, we’re often more concerned with how a sentence sounds and communicates rather than how it looks. But in an age where Instagram and video rule the internet sphere, it’s important to have visually appealing work. A list without that last comma is unbalanced and distracting. Like an unresolved melody. Place that last comma my friend and resolve it.

Additionally, most writers, government agencies, academic institutions, and public in general support the use of an Oxford comma. Conformity in political and societal affairs = trouble. Conformity in spelling and grammar = understanding. If you want to connect with the general public, get with the times and add that comma!

At the end of the sentence, there’s no right or wrong way to use an Oxford comma. Language is a living breathing organism and “rules” are seldom hard and fast. It’s up to the brand, your employer, or your preference. Whichever way you swing, make sure you’re consistent in usage and everything will be just fine.

How do you feel about an Oxford comma? Pretentious? Necessary? Beautiful? Let it all out below!