How to punctuate with quotation marks

Posted on 9 November 2015 by Emily Stella

In my opinion, New Hart’s Rules offers the clearest explanation of how to punctuate with quotation marks – and the guidance in this post is based on its advice. One of the reasons this topic can be confusing is because the rules differ for British and American English and, as a result, you can often see punctuation in quotation marks written differently.

A mixture of learning the rules and exercising some sense will get you to the right answer.

Introducing a quote

There are two ways you can introduce a quote: one with a colon and the other with a comma.

The best way to know which to use is to follow the complete sentence rule. That is, if the words before the quote comprise a whole sentence, use a colon. Otherwise, use a comma.

Emily couldn’t recall the question: ‘I’m sorry, could you please repeat the question?’

Failing to remember the question, Emily said, ‘I’m sorry, could you please repeat the question?’

You can also use a colon to introduce a large quote by setting the quote apart from the main text as a new and indented paragraph.

Punctuation with quotation marks

The main principles are pretty simple. In British English, if the quoted material ends in punctuation, then your punctuation sits inside the quotation marks. When the quoted material doesn’t end in punctuation, then your punctuation sits outside the quotation marks. This goes for full stops, commas, question marks and exclamation marks.

Below, I’ve set out various punctuation scenarios you might be faced with in your writing, along with a couple of examples.

Scenario 1

When you’re quoting a full sentence, the closing punctuation sits inside quotation marks.

‘Does anyone know when the next powwow is?’ asked Clare.

‘I’m really embarrassed by my finance exam results,’ said Peter.

(It’s worth noting in the second example here that a comma is used within the quotation marks, not a full stop. The comma represents a full stop or a comma in the original text.)

Scenario 2

When the quoted material doesn’t include punctuation at the end, the closing punctuation sits outside the quotation marks.

Our team away-days are known as ‘escapes’.

Why does Tom use the phrase ‘deep dive’?

The latest report for the Department for Transport states that passenger numbers have ‘risen by 5% every year for the past four years’.

 

Scenario 3

When you interrupt a quote, the punctuation sits outside the quotation marks.

‘The timeline is too tight’, she said, ‘and we must give up the task.’

However, in instances where the sentence would naturally have had punctuation where it was broken off, your punctuation sits inside the quotation marks.

‘If you let me join the meeting,’ he said ‘I’ll be sure to take notes.’

 

American English rules

American English rules are easier to follow:

1) Full stops and commas always fall inside quotation marks.

2) Question marks, exclamation marks, semicolons and colons fall outside quotation marks unless they belong to the quoted matter.

 

Double vs single quotation marks

There’s no hard and fast rule on whether you need to use double or single quotation marks. You can do as you wish, but make sure it’s consistent within your document and in line with your company house style. And if you have a quote within a quote, you’ll need to use the other type of mark, whichever that is.

‘Does anyone know what it means to “eyeball” a document?’

Attica has written a blog on this topic: Is it single or double quotation marks?.