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Manuscript 101–Where do I put the “quotation marks”?

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Thanks Amy Jane for giving me the perfect segue from apostrophes into quotation marks. Where quotation marks come in relationship to other punctuation can be rather tricky, especially if you’re like me and you read not just American-published stuff, but British and Australian as well. If you’re outside of the U.S. reading this, please understand that the rules I will refer to apply to standards of American printing. Also, this will focus on the use of quotation marks in fiction writing. If you need information on how to format/cite quotations in academic or journalistic work, I suggest you refer to the MLA or AP manuals.

As 99.99% of fiction writers already know, spoken dialogue is enclosed in quotation marks. A change in speaker is indicated by a new paragraph:

“I’m sure they treat you like a celebrity down in Atlanta.”

“Hmm.” The author grimaced. “Yeah—and that’s one of the reasons I’m here now.”

A thrill of excitement rushed up Kirsten’s spine. “Are you here to research a new book?”

“No, but I’m sure this place and its history will give me some ideas. I’m moving here—to teach English and journalism at Boone College.”

“Oh—those lucky students! I’m sure you’ll be their favorite professor.”

“Thanks.” Ms. Hebert sipped the latte. “This is really good. How much do I owe you?”

Kirsten held her hands up in protest. “A visitor’s—or newcomer’s—first cup is always on the house.”

Periods vs. commas. A period is used when what comes after the closing quotation mark is a new sentence (all of the examples above). A comma is used when what follows is part of the same sentence—most often seen with “said/asked” dialogue tags or when an action beat comes in the middle of a line of dialogue:

“If you’ll just look at this,” she held the report out toward him, “I think you’ll understand.”

“I don’t want to look at it,” he said, turning away from her. “Just tell me what it says.”

Interrupted speech. An em dash is used to indicate an interruption:

“What in the—”

“Look out!” Jeremy tackled her just before the bus hit her.


“How could you possibly think”—she jumped to her feet—“this wouldn’t upset me?”

The em dash is also used for interjections/parenthetical elements in the middle of a sentence. These are often what they refer to in drama as “asides.” Like parentheses, you must remember to close your em dash:

“When we went to the Grand Canyon—remember, the family trip back in high school—we went through Santa Fe on the way back.”

The em dash, as you’ll notice, does not have spaces on either side of it. It is achieved in MS Word by typing two hyphens – – (with no space between them) after the word where you want it. The keyboard shortcut is [ctrl][alt][number-pad minus sign] in the PC version of Word and [option][apple][number-pad minus sign] in Word for Mac.

One formatting problem Word has when using an em dash is that at the end of a piece of dialogue, it turns the quotation mark around the wrong way. There are two ways to eliminate this problem. In the PC version of Word, after your em dash, hit [ctrl][‘](apostrophe) then [shift][“]. This should turn the quotation mark the right way (this works for getting the apostrophe to face the correct direction at the beginning of a word, too). Or you can do it the cheap way: type your two hyphens followed by any random letter, followed by the quotation mark, then delete the random letter.

Faltering/Fading speech. An ellipsis* is used to indicate when someone’s thought trails off, or to indicate that they’ve gone on and on and on but you’ve saved the reader the tedium of reading something you’ve either already shown before, or that it’s not important (shown through the other character’s bored reaction):

She shrugged. “Well, you know what they say . . .” Her voice drifted off.

“No, what do they say?”

*Three spaced dots are used when they follow an incomplete sentence. Four dots (period [space] dot [space] dot [space] dot) follow a complete sentence. . . .

Ellipses can be used at the beginning of a line of dialogue when a character has walked into a conversation in progress.

Quotations within quotations. When you are including a quote within a quote, it goes in single quotation marks:

“When he said, ‘by any means necessary,’ I don’t think he meant bribery.”

(Notice, the comma goes inside the single quotes.)

“I think I know what he meant when he said, ‘by any means necessary.'”

(Like the previous example, the period goes before the single quote mark—because a period won’t change the meaning of the quote.)

“What did he mean when he said, ‘by any means necessary’?”

(Now the punctuation comes after the single quote, because the quoted statement isn’t a question. If I’d put the question mark inside the single quote, it would have changed the meaning of the quote.)

All punctuation would come after an apostrophe at the end of a sentence:

“Good mornin’.”

“How’re you doin’?”

The general rule for closing quotation marks and other punctuation, according to CMS 6.8, is that periods and commas always come before the closing quote mark. In standard dialogue, a question mark, exclamation point or other punctuation all come before the closing quotation mark (not after the speaker attribution if you’re using a said/asked dialogue tag). When you’re not writing dialogue (for example, when writing your blog or nonfiction) and you’re using quoted materials, commas, periods, and ellipses would come inside the closing quotation mark. If the quote does not include a question mark or exclamation point as its own closing punctuation, question marks and exclamation points, along with colons and semicolons, come after the closing quotation mark:

Which of Shakespeare’s characters said, “To be, or not to be”?

I hope that clarifies things. What are some other questions about quotation marks that I’ve missed or that you’ve run into in your own writing?

  1. Wednesday, June 6, 2007 10:32 am

    As you probably already know, I love em dashes and ellipses. They’re my favorites! Now to read about apostrophes–ugh! I never can get those right.


  2. Wednesday, June 6, 2007 3:30 pm

    The only example that looked weird to me was:

    “How could you possibly think—” she jumped to her feet—”this wouldn’t upset me?”

    I would have put the ending em dash inside the quotes, with a comma after feet. Guess I need to brush up.


  3. Wednesday, June 6, 2007 6:20 pm

    Another excellent post!


  4. Wednesday, June 6, 2007 9:55 pm

    Can you do more about em dashes? Do you always need 2?


  5. Wednesday, June 6, 2007 10:00 pm

    Ooops. I just reread it. I guess that answers my question…


  6. Thursday, June 7, 2007 10:43 am

    I love love love dialogue. So these rules I actually know. It’s probably the only grammar section I wouldn’t fail.

    Bad use of quotations drive me batty. And I’ve seen it in PUBLISHED work, not just from crit partners.


  7. Thursday, June 7, 2007 10:50 am

    I’ll cover em dashes more at length in anther post (and ellipses, too, for all those ellipses lovers out there!), but the general rule of thumb is that when you use one in the middle of a sentence to form an aside, as mentioned, yes, there are always two. But what comes after the em dash can also end the sentence—if you know what I mean. 🙂 In that case, no, there doesn’t have to be a second em dash in the sentence.


  8. Cleta permalink
    Tuesday, November 20, 2007 12:57 am

    When you have a quote in the middle of a sentence with a semicolon following it, what punctuation is correct?

    Ms. Jones stated “I can’t see”;therefore, I have referred her to an ophtalmologist. Is this correct?


  9. Tuesday, November 20, 2007 9:24 am

    Cleta, you’re almost there:

    Ms. Jones stated, “I can’t see”; therefore, I have referred her to an ophthalmologist.

    Or it could be written this way:

    Ms. Jones stated, “I can’t see,” so I have referred her to an ophthalmologist.

    In the first example, the semicolon comes after the quotation mark because the quotation mark is part of the first of the two independent clauses. In the second example, it can go inside the quotation mark because the comma does not change the meaning of the phrase. (A semicolon indicates a full-stop, a comma indicates a pause.)


  10. jim sawyer permalink
    Tuesday, February 10, 2009 10:21 am

    When writing a thought ( for example: Here is where i get off, I thought to myself.)
    ARe quotation marks used?


  11. Tuesday, February 10, 2009 2:01 pm

    Jim, no quotation marks are not used for internal thoughts. See these two posts on how to do those:—the-sixth-sense/


  12. Tuesday, April 11, 2017 8:05 am

    Where is the proper place to put quotes when the same speaker needs a new paragraph?


    • Tuesday, April 11, 2017 9:16 am

      Technically, you’d leave the end quote off the first paragraph and start the new paragraph with a quotation mark to show it’s still part of the same speech.

      However, you’d probably be better off breaking it up with a quick action beat. Just like narrative, too much dialogue in long blocks can get really old/boring for readers.



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