What Are Quotation Marks?


Quotations are tricky: you have to get them just right. Any word changes, punctuation mark alterations, editing or omissions need to be specially noted, otherwise you could be accused of misquoting or much worse. This guide will show you how to properly use quotations.

To make changes in verb tenses and to add clarification within quotation marks, use brackets: [ ]. To omit words that aren’t necessary (never omit any important information, or information that changes the meaning of the original quote), use ellipses: …. These are the two basic kinds of quotations editing you will need.

When you need to quote a quotation within a quotation, use single quotes (‘ ’) within double quotes (“ ”); this is, of course, good for dialogue. Periods and commas usually go within the quotation marks, and when starting a full sentence in quotes, capitalize the first letter of the first word. If a quote ends in a question mark, exclamation point, or otherwise distinguishing punctuation mark, leave it in there—that’s as the author intended.

Many times we think we need quotations when what we should really do is summarize or paraphrase a passage. Over-quoting can distract your reader and make him lose interest, since he is primarily interested in what you have to say. Paraphrasing and summarizing have their own set of rules (namely, that whatever you are mentioning from another’s source must be in your own words), but the main rule for quoting, paraphrasing, and summarizing is simple: give credit where credit is due.

For academic papers, this is especially important, because your institution could accuse you of plagiarism if you don’t comply with their methods of quoting and citing. The three main methods are APA, or the American Psychological Association’s method; MLA, which is the Modern Language Association’s style; and Chicago Manual of style, which employs extensive footnoting guidelines and is the preferred method for history scholars. APA emphasizes dates (since scientific data is timely and such papers are usually about studies, innovations, and hypotheses); MLA emphasizes authors and page numbers (since we want to be able to find the quotes quickly); and Chicago provides information which is often archival. A works cited pages or a list of references is required for all academic writing.

Usually, quotations must be properly introduced into your academic paper or text with a frame or signal phrase such as “Hemingway writes…” or “On her show, Oprah often says…”—otherwise the quote is unattached and floating around within your paper. These are sometimes called “dropped quotes,” and make the reader do too much work fitting the quote into your paper. Statistical information is an exception, because usually stats speak for themselves.

If you’re writing fiction, of course, you don’t need to cite, since it’s your characters doing the talking, and they’ll (probably) never turn around and sue you for misquoting or libel. Still, you need to be careful how your use quotations in fiction too. “Sheila said” is usually preferable to “Sheila screamed, moaned, wailed, sobbed [or] choked.” Keep it simple—let your characters speak, and we’ll be able to tell what they’re feeling with very little emphasis on your part. If you get bored with “said”, then switch the placement of the words around. Instead of “Sheila said ‘Be quiet James’” try “‘James,’” Sheila said, “‘be quiet.’” Note that the periods and commas are still going within the quotation marks.

Also when writing fiction and using quotations, remember that less is more. You don’t have to repeat every line of dialogue, all the okays and yes dears. Skip to the good stuff. And if you need a good guide, it never hurts to reread some of Ernest Hemingway’s short stories, since he has long been considered one of the masters of fictional dialogue.

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