Using Quotation Marks

Apr 2003; expanded by Dennis G. 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


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.


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.  

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.
George "Dubya" Bush is well-known for making up words. 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:


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 ""
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 "".
Moving the final period outside the end quote shows that the period is not part of the web address.


Basic Usage: Double Quotation Marks
When writing standard English for American audiences, use double quotation marks (but switch to single quotations marks when nesting a quotation inside a quotation). Put terminal punctuation inside quotes, except when quoting a question or an exclamation; place quotation marks around the titles of short works; use quotations when you want to be "ironic" or perhaps "distance yourself" from "slang" or "controversy".

Quoting Speech in Narrative Prose
Quotation marks signal direct speech (the actual words a speaker spoke). In creative writing, you may choose to use direct quotes to indicate interior thoughts, though you might instead use italics or nothing at all.

Exceptions: When Quotation Marks are Unnecessary
for using quotation marks occur when quoting:  passages longer than a paragraph long, academic material, reference books, or question-and-answer style interviews.

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