Basic Usage of Quotation Marks

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 punctuation, titles 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 book in 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 inside the quotation mark.

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 terminology, slang, 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.

Using Quotation Marks [Basic Usage | Dialogue Usage | Exceptions]