Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Business Basics for Today’s Writer—Learn the CORRECT Way to Use Quotation Marks

by Edie Melson

I don’t do this often, but sometimes my inner editor just can’t take it anymore. So today I’m letting her loose with a personal rant about quotation marks. And we're begging you all to take a few moments, and learn the correct way to use quotation marks.

HINT: Quotations marks are not to EVER be used for emphasis—more on that later.

Quotation Mark Basics

Usage One
Quotation marks are used to denote the spoken words in a dialogue. They are not used for an internal dialogue (thoughts).

When you are writing dialogue, the punctuation marks go inside the quotation marks.

“It’s a beautiful day outside,” said Tammie.

I’m not going to give you all the ins and outs of correctly formatting dialogue because I’ve already done that on the post, FictionTechniques for Non-fiction Writers—Write Dialogue Correctly

Usage Two
Quotation marks are used within a sentence to denote a word-for-word phrase taken from somewhere else. This is used primarily in research writing.

As Susan always reminded us, “pretty is as pretty does.”

Usage Three
Quotation marks are used for titles of shorter works. Longer works are denoted by italics. How do you tell the difference? Here’s a good rule of thumb. If it’s the piece of a whole, use quotes.

A song would be in quotes, but the album would be in italics.

Usage Four
Quotation marks can be used to express irony.

My dog Jake was really “sad” when I dropped raw hamburger on the kitchen floor.

Needless to say, he was thrilled when I dropped raw hamburger on the kitchen floor.

The fourth usage for quotation marks has led to a lot of misuse—that of placing quotes around a word the author wants to emphasize.

I once saw the following sign:

Writers Workshop
“ALL” writers welcome

The person who put up the sign wanted to emphasize the words FREE and ALL. What they were doing was telling those who read the sign that the workshop wasn’t free and there were some writers who wouldn’t be welcome. YIKES!

I also see this a lot in blogging. 

Here’s an example:
“Wisdom” is the word I’ve chosen to celebrate this coming year.

What the blogger above is actually saying is that the word for the coming year is anything “but” wisdom. (Did you catch the mistake in this sentence too?)

The correct way to emphasize a word is to put it in italics. You can also use all caps and/or bolding.

Wisdom is the word I’ve chosen to celebrate this coming year.

What the blogger above is actually saying is that the words for the coming year is anything but wisdom.

This post may seem like nitpicking, but truthfully our knowledge about craft says a lot about our commitment to professionalism. 

I remind writers that this is a great time to have chosen writing as a career. BUT that also means there's lots of competition out there. Anything you can do to prove your excellence will help you to stand out in the crowd—in a good way. 

Because really, do you want something you wrote to end up on one of my favorite blogs, The Blog of Unnecessary Quotation Marks

Do you have a quotation mark question? Or have you seen a funny misusage of quotes? Share them in the comments section below.

And don't forget to join the conversation!


  1. Uh oh, I think I may have made this boo-boo this week in my blog. I was posting about humorous cooking mistakes I had made during holidays and one sentence used this phrase in quotes: the supposed to be good carrots. Thanks for the insight. I will strive to be more diligent from now on!

    1. Everyone gets a pass when we don't know it's wrong! Thanks for stopping by! Blessings, E

  2. Ahhhhhhhh. . . this editor is saying AMEN (not "Amen') to this post. I feel better already. Now if our writers will take it to heart, editors everywhere will be happy, happy, happy!

    1. I know. I waited as long as I could to bring it up. But I couldn't help myself! Blessings, E

  3. Okay, you gave me a new one - song title in quotes and album in italics. And I didn't realize that putting a single word in quotes equates irony: the "sad" dog. That was an eye-opener, Edie. Thanks!

    1. Ane, it's a small distinction - irony versus emphasis - and if someone doesn't know the rule it's easy to misuse. Thanks so much for dropping by, Blessings, E

  4. The one that drives me up a wall is the placement of commas and periods outside the quote marks.

    1. All these little things add up to a sign that says, NEWBIE WRITER, even though lots of us veterans make some these faux pas! Thanks for stopping by, Blessings, E

  5. May I "quote" you on this? I'm sorry. You knew I couldn't resist. Great post Edie. Thanks for straightening me out. I should have paid more attention in English class but what was outside the window inevitably caught my attention.

  6. Since you've said the correct way to emphasis something is to put it in italics, or bold, or CAPS, how do you decide which of these to use?

    1. Ellen, great question! And you're going to hate the depends. Here's what I mean. If you're emphasizing a word in an article where you quote the Bible and the verses are in italics, it would be confusing to add a new use for italics. In that instance I'd use bold or caps. Caps is good when you don't have the option to put something in italics or bold - like this comment box. My first choice is italics, provided I'm not using italics for another purpose. My second is bold, my third is all caps. But I go back and forth between bold and caps. Hope this helps! Blessings, E