Write Right: A Quagmire of Quotation Marks

Write RightI’ve been known to use the quotation mark symbol with my fingers to make a point – usually a sarcastic one – but I’m always amused when I see flagrant abuse and misuse of quotation marks. “Do ‘not’ park here”? I have to wonder what the writer was thinking. Perhaps the writer was trying to add emphasis. Unfortunately, the quotation mark was not the solution to the problem. The quotation mark was not only necessary but also made the entire statement suspect.

Quotation marks, like any punctuation mark, have rules that must be followed. When those rules are followed, a person’s writing is that much more effective. When they are not followed, the writing becomes a laughing matter and the fodder of books like More Badder Grammar. Onto the rules:

Quotation marks enclose direct quotations.

“James,” Mary asked, “Are we going home soon?”

Mary asked James if they were going home soon.

Single quotation marks should be used to enclose a quotation within a quotation.

“Why,” the lecturer asked, “do we say ‘Bless you!’ or something else when people sneeze but not acknowledge coughs, hiccups, and other eruptions?”

Set off quotations of dialogue, poetry, and long prose passages according to standard practice. This rule is tedious, but I’ll try to illustrate it clearly and succinctly. With dialogue, a new paragraph must be started for each speaker:

“What are you doing here?” Andrew exclaimed.

“Marybeth invited me.” Priscilla retorted.

Poetry and prose are altogether different beasts. Quotation marks can be used up to a point. The general rule with poetry is a maximum of three lines before it must be contained within a block quote. One of my favorite poems, while short, exceeds the three-rule line and therefore must be reproduced as a block quote:

I am not obsessing.

I am just sitting here

perforating this post-it

with a push-pin. (Ada Limon, from Lucky Wreck)

Prose works similarly to poetry, although the rule is a little looser. As a general guideline, if the quoted material exceeds three lines of typewritten copy, it’s time to employ the block quote.

Quotation marks are to be used around the titles of works that are parts of larger works. For example, a poem such as Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” uses quotation marks because it is part of a larger body of work. Those larger bodies of works – books, plays, periodicals, and movies – should be underlined or italicized.

Place other punctuation marks inside or outside quotation marks according to standard practice. Commas and periods should always be inside the quotation marks except when a parenthetical source citation immediately follows a quotation. Colons and semicolons should be placed outside the quotation marks. Dashes, question marks, and exclamation points belong inside quotation marks only if they belong to the quotation.

Quotation marks may be used to enclose words used in a special sense. Most people understand that double quote fingers signify a special sense of a particular word. When quotes are used around a single word, the writer is emoting sarcasm or some other emotion regarding that word. Most readers quickly tire of such quoting, so it should be used sparingly.

Finally, use quotation marks only when they are required. I probably say the following statement all too often, but it’s true: Punctuation marks need to be used in moderation.

Know of a writing wrong in need of righting? Let me know on my Facebook page.