Using quote marks correctly – grammar dilemmas

Posted by | July 10, 2013 | Writing and Editing | 2 Comments
Quote marksI was in year 4 at school when the concept of quotation marks was introduced to our class. Because I was a smartypants I had been writing stories for years using quote marks to contain my characters' speech, and the initial lesson on quotation marks was a validation of what I'd already been doing. I had taught myself by reading novels and noticing how quote marks went outside commas and periods. It all seemed pretty logical. And it is. So here's a quick lowdown on how to use quote marks. The Australian Government Publishing Services' Style Manual suggests using a single quotation mark rather than double quotation marks to enclose direct speech and reported speech (although it's equally permissable to use double quote marks). For example,

'The bar will be open at 10am,' the publican said.

If you want to enclose a quote within a quote, you'd use double quote marks for the enclosed quote. For example,

'His very words were "no way would we get the job",' she said.

Do you see what relationship the quote marks have to the commas, particularly in the second example? (If you were using double quote marks instead of single for the initial quotation, you'd use single quote marks for the enclosed quote: "His very words were 'no way would we get the job'," she said.) Quote marks typically are placed outside the comma, period, question mark or exclamation mark in the case of direct or reported speech. In the second example, where you have a quote-within-a-quote, the comma is placed after the quote-within-a-quote, then the final single quote mark closes the entire quotation.

Consecutive paragraphs of quotes

Let's imagine you are writing a media release about a new product or service, and your managing director is being widely quoted within that media release. When you're writing a media release, it's best to keep sentences and paragraphs relatively short and clear.  So, when you're quoting The Boss, your media release would use quote marks in this way:

'We believe the Shrdlu Widget to be the most advanced of its type,' said Fred Nurk, Managing Director.

'The widget outperforms its competitors in several ways.

'Firstly, its battery life is three times longer than that of its closest competitor. That means it can operate for up to three weeks without needing to be recharged.

'Secondly, the Shrdlu is the smallest widget on the market, and its convenient size means it can fit into your wallet if necessary.

'Finally, its durable aluminium casing means it is less prone to damage than many of its competitors,' Mr Nurk said.

Notice that you don't close the quote marks at the end of each sentence or paragraph while Mr Nurk is still being quoted. You simply put a quote mark at the beginning of each new paragraph, and finally, when Mr Nurk's quote has been completed, close the quotation with a quote mark outside the final comma.

Commas or periods?

Looking at the dummy media release above, you'll notice that we use commas rather than periods/full stops when closing each quotation, e.g.:

'We believe the Shrdlu Widget to be the most advanced of its type,' said Fred Nurk, Managing Director.

'Finally, its durable aluminium casing means it is less prone to damage than many of its competitors,' Mr Nurk said.

You could also use exclamation marks or question marks in this situation:

'We challenge anyone to make a better widget!' declared Fred Nurk.

'Can you believe how light yet powerful this widget is?' asked Mr Nurk.

What you can't use is a period/full stop. Really. You can't. But here's where you can - at the end of a quotation where the speaker is quoted in the beginning or middle:

'My widgets,' said Fred Nurk, 'are the best in Australia.'

Fred Nurk said, 'My widgets are the best in Australia.'

Inside vs Outside

There are occasions when your quote marks will be inside rather than outside your punctuation marks, for example:

Economists describe this as the 'gross national product'.

This isn't a direct quotation, you see. You can use quote marks to introduce nicknames, slang, technical terms, humorous words and phrases, or use your quote marks to be just a little bit sarcastic, e.g.:

Politicians 'care' about what voters need and want.

If a punctuation mark relates to the sentence itself rather than the quotation, it should be placed outside the quotation mark. For example,

The boy said, 'I wish you would keep quiet', but his sister took no notice.

There was a cacophony of noise in the airport terminal. He strained to listen. 'Flight 15 is now boarding', 'Flight 60 from Hobart has landed' and 'Will passenger Smith for Flight 40 to Brisbane please make yourself known at the terminal' were the only three announcements he could understand.

I hope this has helped you understand where to place quote marks when you're writing. If you need help proofreading or writing, contact us to find out more about our services.

2 Comments

  • Jack Ellis says:

    If any of my journos wrote in this stlted style, I’d be very annoyed, although it is typical of very many press releases.
    Can I suggest:
    Managing director (no caps for director) Fred Nurk is confident the Shrdlu Widget is the most advanced of its type.
    ‘The widget outperforms its competitors in several ways,’ Mr Nurk said.
    ‘Firstly, its battery life is three times longer than that of its closest competitor. That means it can operate for up to three weeks without needing to be recharged.
    ‘Secondly, the Shrdlu is the smallest widget on the market, and its convenient size means it can fit into your wallet if necessary.
    ‘Finally, its durable aluminium casing means it is less prone to damage than many of its competitors.’
    After working for many media organisations in the past 40 years, I am yet to see one that uses single quotes rather than double. But yes, the Australian Government style manual does use single quotes with doubles for subquotes.

    • Sabrina says:

      Thanks Jack. The Shrdlu story was indeed intended to be viewed as a mock press release. Thanks for reading and thanks for your comment. I find it hard to use single quotes too after a lifetime of using double quotes.

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