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Quotation Style

I am devoting a page to the punctuation of quotations because it is perhaps the area of mechanics where I see the most frequent problems. The following remarks do not cover the rules that govern citations (footnotes or parenthetical page references). For more information on MLA style, which I ask my students to use, see the following page. For other systems of documentation, see reference sources, a librarian, or the teacher who assigned the paper.

Punctuating the Ends of Quotations

You can punctuate the endings of quotations by following three simple rules:

  • Put commas and periods inside quotations marks. (Note that British usage and some citation styles do not follow this rule. Standard U.S. usage, however, does follow it.)

    "You are a spider," she said. "A stupid, ugly, mean spider who talks too much."

  • Put colons and semicolons outside quotations marks.

    "You are a spider": that is a sentence no proud man wants to hear.

  • Put question marks and exclamation points inside quotation marks if they come from the quoted material, outside if they apply to the whole sentence.

    I have often thought of Barrett Browning's question, "How do I love thee?" When you think of your love for me, do you "count the ways"?

Introducing Quoted Material

When you introduce a quotation with your own words, the quotation will follow a comma, a colon, or no punctuation, depending on the situation. Here are the three possibilities:

  • Use a comma when you have introduced--or are following--the quotation with an expression such as "he said" or "she remarked."

    "They never should have given up those red, white, and blue basketballs," Gertrude opined. Beauregard thought for a moment and replied, "You're right."

  • Use a colon when you have introduced the quotation with a full independent clause of your own.

    Gertrude paused for a moment, frowned, and then found the word she was seeking: "globular."

  • Use no punctuation or a comma, depending on the structure of the sentence, when the quotation blends into the structure of your own sentence. You can mentally remove the quotation marks to see whether the sentence makes sense without a comma. If not, add the comma.

    Yogi Berra probably did not say that a baseball game "isn't over 'till it's over." In a more mathematical vein, Berra did say, "90 percent of the game is half mental."

For a more detailed account of quotation practices, see this page.
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