Quote Me on This: Quotation Marks 101

quotation marks letters-1122421_960_720Here at Indies Unlimited, we often get questions about the knottier issues of writing. Recently, Lynne Cantwell discussed the use of italics; today we’ll talk about quotes. In my editing work, I use the Chicago Manual of Style (CMoS), and that is my source for this information on using quotes.

The main thing to remember is that quotation marks (as all punctuation) are used as visual clues to your readers. It sends a signal to your readers about the context of what they are reading, and as such, they are necessary and invaluable to convey what you, the writer, want to convey. Imagine if you did not use quotation marks (or punctuation) in your writing.

     Sylvia he asked opening the door what are you doing

Without the visual clues of quotes and punctuation, this looks like a weird mishmash of phrases. The reader would certainly need to peruse this a bit to glean its intended meaning. But when we put in the visual clues, we get this:

     “Sylvia,” he asked, opening the door, “what are you doing?”

Ah, makes much more sense now. So let’s talk about the various guidelines for quotation marks.


Obviously, quotation marks are used to delineate and offset direct quotes — dialog — and separate them from the main storytelling text.

     “Harvey, what do you think of this?” she asked. She held the book up so he could see the cover. “It’s a kind of a ‘rule book’ for dating.”
     “I don’t need a ‘rule book,’” he answered.

The basic guideline is that you need an open quote before the beginning of the dialog and a close quote at the end of it. Think of it as a closed system, requiring a start and a finish, like parentheses. Have you ever seen a single parenthesis used without its bracketing opposite? No. Quotes are the same, with one exception, which will follow below.

Where things get tricky is when we have nesting quotes. In the sequence above, the phrase ‘rule book’ is offset by single quotes. (CMoS advises that italics can be used for such referential phrases, as well.) If we had used double quotes for that, the meaning of the sentence might be muddied by the repeated visual clues, as the reader would be looking for the close quote to end the dialog.

     “Harvey, what do you think of this?” she asked. She held the book up so he could see the cover. “It’s a kind of a “rule book” for dating.”
     “I don’t need a “rule book,”” he answered.

Think of quotes as a toggle switch — open, close — and you’ll see that open, open, close, close doesn’t work so well. So what do we do? Switch to single quotes within the double quotes. This creates a new complete system — open, close — that offsets the phrase. Now it’s clear to the reader that the quotes around ‘rule book’ have nothing to do with the quotes around the dialog.

In the US, the pattern for nesting quotes is (1) double quotes, (2) single quotes, (3) double quotes, (4) single quotes, and so on. In the UK, it’s often reversed.

Now, you may have noticed in the last sentence of that example, we had a pairing of a double and single close quote.

“I don’t need a ‘rule book,’” he answered.

Because both of these quotations marks are complete systems, and both require a close quote, they go together at the end of the dialog. In this case, it’s just coincidence that the last word of the phrase is also the last word of the dialog, and both require their own close quote.

Earlier I said there was one exception to the rule about having a close quote at the end of dialog. This is when the same speaker continues speaking, but changes subjects with a new paragraph.

     “Why don’t we go to that new bistro for lunch?” Gloria asked. “It’s only a couple of blocks away; not too far to walk.
     “By the way, I saw Fred yesterday.”

In this example, Gloria is continuing to talk, but she’s abruptly changed subjects from lunch to seeing Fred. The new paragraph signals the reader that the subject is changing. The lack of closed quote at the end of the first paragraph tells the reader that the speaker is going to continue talking in the next one.


Punctuation around quotes can get dicey, as well. Generally in the US, we put our punctuation (commas, periods, question marks) inside the quotes. This is another instance where it’s often done the opposite way in the UK, but we’ll just concentrate on the US usage. Now let’s go back to Harvey.

“I don’t need a ‘rule book,’” he answered.
“Unfortunately, I believe you do,” she said.
“What do you mean, ‘unfortunately’?”

In Harvey’s last remark, he’s quoting her use of the word ‘unfortunately,’ but he’s doing it within his own question. The question mark is not part of the direct quote of the word ‘unfortunately,’ so it goes outside the single close quote. The only things that go inside the single quotes should be the words and punctuation actually used by the one being quoted.

Also, you’ll notice above that there is a comma used before the close quote, and the tag he answered. If there is a dialog tag after the close quote, a comma must be used – not a period. This is an error we see all too often.

Quotes vs. Italics

As I noted above, CMoS states that there are times when italics can be used rather than quotes. Italics can be used to show emphasis or to offset a word or phrase, and they are frequently used for titles like books, magazines, or songs. Where it gets a little trickier is in the details of a nesting situation.

For example, a book title would be italicized, but the chapter titles (except when they are simply numbers) would be in quotation marks. A TV show title would be italicized, but the titles of the individual episodes would be in quotation marks. The title of an album or CD would be in italics, but the song titles themselves would be in quotation marks.


The definition of paraphrasing is a restatement of a text or passage giving the meaning in another form, as for clarity or brevity; in other words, rewording. Because paraphrasing is not a direct quote, it should never have quotation marks around it.

     George frowned down at the flag in his hands. “Given the current wind conditions and the instability of the bracket on the side of the house, I don’t think this is an optimal time to do this.”
     “What did he say?” John asked.
      “He said now’s not the time,” Agnes supplied.

Agnes summarized what George said, but she did not quote him directly; ergo, no quotes.

Quotation marks can be tricky, but they don’t need to be. Whenever in doubt, just check the Chicago Manual of Style. You’ll be doing yourself, your editor, and your readers a great favor.

Author: Melissa Bowersock

Melissa Bowersock is an eclectic, award-winning author who writes in a variety of fiction and non-fiction genres. She has been both traditionally and independently published and lives in a small community in northern Arizona. Learn more about Melissa from her Amazon author page and her blog.

8 thoughts on “Quote Me on This: Quotation Marks 101”

  1. Melissa:

    Or: you could do what I’ve taken to doing, and that’s using single quotes for everything.

    It does work.

    This is how I got on to it it. I was proofing the final copy of my first novel, which was in Times New Roman 11.5pt.

    The curly quote marks around single or even up to three words looked heavy – like ears.

    I was also editing someone else’s book. I suggested to him that we make the quote marks around single words, up to, say, three words, single.

    To cut a longish story short … I do it for everything now. It does work.


    – Paul Corrigan

    1. Paul, that’s one way to do it, although I don’t think I’d go that route. The interesting thing about writing is that, although there are guidelines for everything (as in the CMoS), writers can adopt any style they choose, and as long as they’re consistent and the reader can easily follow the story, no one’s going to throw them in writer’s jail. Remember the adage: learn the rules like a professional so you can break them like an artist.

    2. I don’t know. This one’s simple: if you’re editing for US English, you don’t use single quote marks (other than for quotes within quotes, in headlines, and in some specialist academic writing). Melissa’s post is lucid and succinct on that point. As a writer, feel free to change the rules (although your editor might have a few thoughts about that) and risk the wrath of readers, but as an editor there are are some aspects of written English that are immutable. (Yes, that last clause is a dangler, but I’m in a hurry. 😉 )

  2. Oh, Melissa:

    I’d say ‘I love you’ but propriety might stop me …

    – Paul

  3. I’m with Melissa on all of this. Check out my post last month, “Make Your Writing Invisible;” the last thing I want to do is draw attention to the mechanics of my writing or put up barriers to the reader’s connection with the story. When I see an author who makes up a new method of expressing anything that is done better by the traditional way, I say “Oh, how cute!” and move on, usually to another book.
    The cue here is “done better by the traditional way.” Sometimes circumstances force a change, and that’s all right by me. People who decide, for example, that it would be a whole lot better to have no punctuation at all, just to be different, are wasting my time. E.e.cummings (Should I have capitalized that “e”?) did the “no capitals” thing as a protest, and I don’t think it added anything to his poetry, just to his reputation as a leader at a time when anything different (and I do mean anything) was considered wonderful. We’re not in that kind of literary era right now. At the moment, off-the-wall creativity doesn’t sell Indie books. Polished, professional writing does.
    And if that sounds like an old codger, well, guess what?

    1. And I’m flummoxed by how to deal with that semicolon before the quote, “Make Your Writing Invisible;” so I went with the American way, as Melissa tells us. I believe us Canadians and the Brits would have it after, like “Make Your Writing Invisible”; but I’m not sure.
      And, of course, I’m actually quoting the whole thing, so it should have been, “‘Make Your Writing Invisible’;”. Right? Probably wrong.
      I also missed a couple of commas before quotes in the original comment.
      Isn’t grammar fun :-)?

      1. Actually, I believe your semi-colon should be outside the quotes, as it’s not part of the original text on your blog. As in my example above, the quotes around “unfortunately” do not include the question mark, because that was not part of the original dialog. I see your point about the US style vs the UK style, but I don’t believe that enters into it here. And I agree; getting “cute” with writing doesn’t always (ever?) serve the story. Like you, I want my writing to be invisible to the readers so they can “see” through it to the story in their minds. If I’m constantly getting tripped up by nonconformist usage of words, punctuation or grammar, I’m not enjoying the read, and if I’m not enjoying it… what’s the point? Thanks, Gordon.

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