Quotation marks are a type of punctuation used to show direct quotes, dialogue, and certain titles or otherwise to set aside words in text. They have a few important functions in grammar that can make them confusing, especially when you’re wondering whether to use double versus single quotation marks.
In this guide, we explain all the must-know information about quotation marks. We discuss when to use quotation marks in titles, how scare quotes work, and what the difference is between double and single quotation marks. We also share plenty of quotation marks examples so you can see how they’re used.
What is the quotation marks symbol?
The quotation marks symbol is a type of punctuation used for setting words and passages apart from the rest of the text. Quotation marks, or “quotes” for short, look just like commas, except quotation marks are at the top of a line instead of at the bottom. Double quotation marks are simply two “commas” next to each other, while single quotation marks use only one comma. But, unlike commas, quotation marks can face both directions. The direction a quotation mark faces depends on whether it comes before the quote or after.
“How do we use quotation marks?” the student asked their teacher.
When to use quotation marks
It helps to break down rules for quotation marks by their function. So below, we list out the six main uses for quotation marks.
1 Quote a source directly
One of the most common uses of quotation marks is to indicate a direct quote, a passage that is copied verbatim from another source. If you’re using the same word, sentence, or phrase as another author, put those words in between quotation marks.
Naturally, there are different types of quotes, but whenever you are copying someone word for word, you need quotation marks. This is most common in nonfiction writing, when a writer uses a phrase or sentence from a preexisting source, usually to support their thesis.
Stephen Hawking warned that the Higgs boson could potentially lead to “catastrophic vacuum decay” in the universe, caused by “a bubble of the true vacuum expanding at the speed of light.”
2 Show dialogue or transcribe speech
Quotation marks are used to represent speech in written text. In nonfiction, they’re commonly used to transcribe what a person said, as with an interview or eyewitness account. In fiction, they’re used for writing dialogue or whenever a character says something out loud.
“Where is the emergency room?” he asked the nurse urgently.
However, if you’re paraphrasing what someone said, you don’t need quotation marks.
He urgently asked the nurse where the emergency room was.
3 Signal the titles of short works
Aside from quotes and speech, English also uses quotation marks for the titles of works. Certain types of works—but not all—use quotation marks around their titles so the reader knows they’re a reference.
Typically, the titles of short-form works like poems, short stories, and songs use quotation marks. Titles of long-form works, like books, films, and stage plays, use italics instead. You can see a complete list of when to use quotation marks for titles and when to use italics in our guide “When to Use Quotation Marks in Titles.”
Written by Sylvia Plath, “Tulips” is a sad poem with a happy title.
4 Set apart a word to show irony, sarcasm, or skepticism (scare quotes)
Scare quotes are used to show that the writer doubts the validity of a word. They are commonly used to show irony, sarcasm, or how something is “popularly termed.” They can have the same meaning as the phrase so-called, including suspicious insinuation.
Scare quotes generally appear as quotation marks around a single word or sometimes a phrase. They also require the proper context so the reader understands why the writer doubts or is qualifying the word’s usage. Scare quotes in writing are the origin of the air quotes gesture in in-person speech.
My “pet” is really just a stray cat that comes by once a day.
5 Discuss words as words
If you want to discuss a word, phrase, or letter in writing without using its intended meaning, set it apart with quotation marks. Depending on the styling format, some writers alternatively use italics, without quotation marks, for this purpose (like us on the Grammarly blog).
The “p” in “pterodactyl” is actually silent.
6 Differentiate a nickname from a given name
Last, if you are writing a person’s nickname together with their given name, set the nickname apart with quotation marks so the reader knows it’s not part of their formal name. The standard is to place the quoted nickname between the first name and the surname, although that’s not necessarily a rule.
Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson can’t escape his origins as a wrestler.
If the nickname is how a famous person is most commonly recognized, as with many historical figures, then no quotes are necessary.
Many historians believe that Richard the Lionheart was gay, but that evidence has been removed from historical records.
When to use single quotation marks
One of the most common points of confusion with quotes is when to use single versus double quotation marks. In American English, single quotation marks are used only for quotes that appear inside other quotes. For example, if you’re quoting a passage that already has a quote in it, use double quotation marks for the main quote and single quotation marks for the quote within a quote.
“My last boss used to always say, ‘You sell more before lunch than the others sell in a week,’” Amira mentioned in her job interview.
However, this applies only to American English, which is also used by the majority of Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. In British English, the rules are reversed: Single quotes are used primarily for quotes, dialogue, titles, etc., and double quotes are used only within other quotes.
Quotation marks rules for grammar
When it comes to grammar, luckily there aren’t too many rules for how to use quotation marks. In fact, if you can remember the three main rules below, you should be in good shape.
1 Place punctuation marks inside quotation marks
When using a period, comma, or exclamation mark with quotation marks, place the punctuation inside the quotes.
“We won!” shouted the coach to no one in particular.
If you’re breaking up a sentence, place a comma after the first part, also inside quotes.
“My goodness,” said my father, “take off your dirty shoes before coming in the house.”
Just like the use of single quotation marks, however, this applies only to American English. British English places punctuation outside quotation marks.
Do question marks go in quotes?
Question marks are a little different. If the question mark is part of the quote, place it inside the quotation marks.
She asked, “Will this be on the test?”
If the question mark is not part of the quote, and instead the quote is part of a question, place it outside of the quotation marks.
Did they just say “free pizza”?
This rule also applies to exclamation points.
They just said “free pizza”!
2 Capitalize the first letter of the quoted sentence
If you’re quoting a complete sentence, capitalize the first letter of the first word, just like a normal sentence. But if the quotation is placed midsentence, forming a syntactical part of the sentence, it begins with a lowercase letter, even if the original sentence begins with a capitalized letter.
The letter opened with, “We regret to inform you your application has been denied.”
Anne Frank reminded us that “whoever is happy will make others happy too.”
However, if you’re not quoting a complete sentence, no capitalization is necessary. This includes individual words, phrases, or separate clauses.
The manager said that the situation was “under control.”
3 Include an opening quotation mark at the beginning of each new quoted paragraph
Some quoted passages are longer than others. If you’re quoting two or more paragraphs, place opening quotation marks at the beginning of each new paragraph. However, place closing quotation marks only at the end of the entire passage, not at the end of each paragraph.
Here’s what the email said:
“It’s been a long time. I hope you’re well.
“I’m writing because I’m coming to Atlanta for work, and I was wondering if you’d like to meet up.”
Quotation marks FAQs
What is the function of quotation marks?
Quotation marks are primarily used to set apart certain words, usually to indicate direct quotes but also to signify the titles of certain works or that a phrase does not use a word’s intended meaning.
When are quotation marks used?
Quotation marks are used to indicate a direct quote, transcribe speech to text, signify titles of small works like poems, show that the validity of a word is doubted, discuss words as words without referencing their intended meaning, and to set apart nicknames from formal names.
What’s the difference between quotes and italics for titles?
Both quotes and italics are used for the titles of works, but certain types of works use only quotes, and others use only italics. In general, short-form works like poems, songs, or short stories use quotation marks, while long-form works like books, films, or stage plays use italics.