Quotation Marks: General American Usage

Originally submitted as Bobby Kuchenmeister’s term project for Dennis Jerz’s EL305: Technical Writing at UWEC. Maintained by Jerz.

 This document explains standard American usage of quotation marks.

Yes “This document follows American practice,” said the instructor, “which begins with double quotation marks, placing terminal periods inside the quotation marks.”
Maybe “British authors have historically used single quotation marks,’ said the lecturer, ‘placing terminal periods outside the quotation marks’.
  • Use Double Quotations Marks (American English)
  • Alternate Double and Single Marks for Nested Quotations
  • Use “Scare Quotes” Sparingly

Titles of Short Works

Short works refer to texts such as:  songs, short stories, lectures, magazine articles, book chapters, episodes of television or radio shows, or one-act plays.  Around the titles of such instances are double quotation marks, as the following examples demonstrate:

“Sounds of Silence” by Simon and Garfunkel (song)

“Bernice Bobs Her Hair” by F. Scott Fitzgerald (short story)

“Encounter at Farpoint” from Star Trek: The Next Generation (episode)

In the last example, “Encounter at Farpoint,” notice how Star Trek is italicized rather than enclosed in quotation marks.  The reason why is because it is not an episode of a television show, but rather the name of a series, or what is considered a longer work.  In cases of mentioning longer works in writing, either italics or underlining is appropriate.


Quotation mark usage in context of emphasis includes terminologyslang, and for purposes of sarcasm.  Consider these examples:

Literary scholars often discuss “tragedy” with reference to Aristotle.

People use the word “homey” as a nickname for their friends.

The first example demonstrates proper usage with terminology, while the second example shows usage for slang.  Having quotation marks around the word tragedy in the first example reminds readers the term is not being used in its conventional definition, but rather from a literary standpoint.

Without quotation marks around tragedy, readers may believe literary scholars discuss the terminology in the same context as everyday people, referring to bad instances.

Similarly, in the second example, “homey” is not a standard English word so quotation marks are needed for distinction.

Use Double Quotation Marks (American English)

When writing for American audiences, use double quotes — even if you are only quoting a single word.

No She found her meal ‘pukeworthy’ and her date even worse.
Yes She found her meal “pukeworthy” and her date even worse.

 Alternate Double and Single for Nested Quotations

When you quote a passage that includes a quote, alternate between double and single quotes — but always use double quotes for the outermost quote.

Yes Gus wanted to buy a song called “Lime in the Coconut.”
Put the title of a song or other short work (a short story, an article, an episode in a TV show) in double quotation marks.
No Gus asked the clerk, “Do you have the song called ‘Lime in the Coconut?'”
The question mark isn’t part of the song title, it’s part of Gus’s question.
Yes He asked the clerk, “Do you have the song called ‘Lime in the Coconut’?”
Now the question mark is the last thing before the quote mark that ends the question.
Yes The clerk burst into the back room. “Hey guys,” he shouted. “Some guy just walked in here and said, ‘Do you have the song called “Lime in the Coconut”?’!”
Since the clerk uses Gus’s question as part of an exclamation, we put the exclamation mark outside of the quoted material attributed to Gus.

Use “Scare Quotes” Sparingly

Some authors use quotation marks to focus doubt on on specific claims made by other writers. For instance:

My doctor likes to tell “jokes.”

We can conclude that the author does not think the doctor is funny. This use of quotation marks can be very effective in personal or informal writing.

Yes I suspect that Bill Clinton “is” sorry he ever met Monica Lewinsky.
Clinton is famous for having quibbled over the definition of “is” when denying a sexual relationship with a White House intern.
Yes Only time will tell what the consequences will be if we “misunderestimate” President Bush again.
Whether George “Dubya” Bush enjoyed homespun linguistic creativity or whether he was linguistically challenged is a matter for historians to debate. The author who puts quotation marks around a single word calls extra attention to it.

Student writers and journalists should avoid ironic or cute use of quoted words — their readers will expect every quoted passage to be attributed somehow.

No The guest speaker held the interest of the class, but she used a few examples that were “over the top.”
Did the class call the speaker “over the top”? Was it the speaker herself? Or does the phrase represent the opinion of the author?One solution is to keep the phrase but attribute it clearly to someone else:
Yes While the guest speaker held the interest of the class, freshman Gus Goodstudent called her final example “over the top.”
Yes While the guest speaker held the interest of the class, she admitted her examples were “over the top.”
If in fact you are the one who thinks the examples are “over the top,” support that claim with facts and specific examples (see “Showing vs. Telling“) that lead the reader to the same conclusion.

When quoting complex techncial information to be used as computer input, break any punctuation that might distort the technical accuracy of the information you wish to communicate.

No I told him to go to “http://jerz.setonhill.edu.”
A naive user who thinks the final period is part of the web address may be confused if the page fails to load.
Yes I told him to go to “http://jerz.setonhill.edu”.
Moving the final period outside the end quote shows that the period is not part of the web address.
Using single and double quotation marks appropriately involves an understanding of three instances when quotation marks are appropriate.  Instances include use with strong and weak punctuationtitles of short works, and emphasis.

Strong and weak punctuation refer to exclamation points and question marks along with periods and commas, respectively.  Placement of these markings are always inside quotation marks:

“I told Jack to fetch a pail of water,” Jill told her mother.

The only exception to this rule is when making a citation or mentioning a reference bookin writing such as a dictionary, thesaurus, or encyclopedia.  Following a shorter quotation, weak punctuation is allowed outside quotation marks, after the citation.

Placement of commas within quotation marks is done when there are two clauses(statements) and one is dependent on the other.  For example:

“Instead of telling him what to do, why did you not help him?” asked Jill’s mother.

The first part of the sentence, Instead of telling him what to do is a dependent clause because it relies on the second part, why did you not help him? in order to make sense.  Therefore, the second part is an independent clause because it could stand alone and still be logical.  This revised example shows proper use of commas with quotation marks(Note:  sentence structure changes appropriately):

“Instead of telling him what to do,” Jill’s mother began, “why did you not help him?”

Placement of exclamation points and question marks also vary with the sentence, depending on what is being focused on.  Consider these two examples:

Did she just say, “I left Jack alone at the well”? and Frantically, Jill just said, “I left Jack alone at the well!”

Both of these examples show people talking but the focus in the first example is not on what the person being talked about said, but rather the question asked by the speaker, hence the exclamation point outside the quotation mark.  The second example shows a focus on what the speaker specifically said, therefore, the exclamation point is insidethe quotation mark.

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