Quotation Marks in Fiction

Quotation marks are a common punctuation with multiple uses. Most often used in dialogue, they have strict rules when used in combination with other punctuation. They also have different rules depending on the English country you are writing or publishing in. This post will focus on how to use quotation marks for American English with an explanation of the differences in other English countries towards the end.

These rules often complicate how to properly use quotation marks in your writing, especially if you are using them in a more unusual circumstance. However, this guide should help you better understand the rules and complications so you can easily edit quotation marks.

Quotation Mark Usage

The double quotation mark (“) has five main purposes in fiction.

  1. to draw special attention to a word or phrase
  2. to mark titles
  3. to turn a word into a noun
  4. to signify someone is talking
  5. to quote someone

To draw special attention to a word or phrase

The first purpose, to draw attention to a word or phrase, is a stylistic decision. For example, if you need to draw attention to a phrase used out-of-context, such as slang in a formal narration, (double) quotation marks can signify to the reader that something is different. This also works if the narrator doesn’t agree with what they are saying and wants to distance themselves, or the narrator is using sarcasm. For example:

 “Pink” is my favorite color.

In this case, using the double quotation marks, the reader understands that pink is emphasized and can draw opinions based on additional context. Such as:

“Pink” is my favorite color. It looks great with my heavy makeup and dyed-black hair.

With the additional context, the reader assumes that “pink” is sarcasm.

Sometimes writers and editors will use formatting to make these distinctions instead of quotation marks, such as italics. This is usually a stylistic decision or based off of a publishing house’s style guide. As an editor or writer, you need to know what is preferred in these instances by the publishing company or style guide you are working from.

To mark titles

While marking titles with (double) quotation marks is more common in formal writing, this rule is also important in fiction. If someone (a character or narrator) is mentioning the title of something, it must be marked by quotation marks (or italics depending on the type of title).

For example:

Her toddler’s favorite song is “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.”

Other instances of titles that should be placed in quotation marks are:

    • articles
    • short stories
    • short works (poems, songs, tv shows)
    • book chapters

For a more comprehensive list of titles that should be italicized or marked by quotation marks, see The Punctuation Guide‘s list.

To turn a word into a noun

This is another rule that is more common in formal writing but still has relevance in fiction writing. If a character or narrator uses a word that is not typically a noun as a noun, then it needs to be in (double) quotation marks. For example:

I hate the word “from.” It always reminds me that I can’t escape my past.

Here, “from” is used as a noun and an object in the sentence. The quotation marks signify that it has a new role than its typical dictionary definition and usage.

To signify someone is talking

Quotation marks (double) are most commonly used in fiction to show that someone is talking, also called dialogue. However, like with question marks, quotation marks are only used to signify direct dialogue, not indirect dialogue.

Direct dialogue is when someone is speaking immediately. Whether it’s written in past tense or present tense, there is the feeling that the words are being spoken now. Additionally, what is being said is their actual words. For example:

Lisa said, “Dinner is my favorite meal.”

Indirect dialogue, which is more common in formal writing or when a character is retelling a story, is when what someone said in the past is being recounted or paraphrased. For example:

Lisa said that dinner is her favorite meal.

As indirect dialogue, what Lisa said is being explained by someone else, either a character or narrator.

The placement of quotation marks for dialogue is more tricky than distinguishing if what is/was being said is direct or indirect quotation marks. There are many rules and nuances that complicate the placement of quotation marks, especially in combination with other punctuation.

Generally, the dialogue’s punctuation is placed within the quotation marks, but there are cases when this is not so.

Additionally, punctuation is required outside of the quotation marks when dialogue tags are provided. Such as:

Troy said, “Be sure not to be late. Sometimes the bus routes run a few minutes early.”

Here, a comma is required after “said.” However, if the dialogue tag was on the other side of the quote, the comma would replace the period after “early.”

“Be sure not to be late. Sometimes the bus routes run a few minutes early,” said Troy.

These rules and nuances are detailed more in the later section, Rules in Fiction.

To quote someone

Quotation marks (double) are used to quote other people. Like dialogue, quotation marks are only used for direct quotes, not paraphrasing. The same punctuation rules for dialogue apply to quoting someone, especially concerning pairing quotation marks with other punctuation.

However, sometimes a quote is part of the dialogue, which requires the use of both double (“) and single (‘) quotation marks. In American English, you should use single quotation marks around the quote and double quotation marks around the dialogue. For example:

When his teacher asked, David said, “Lisa told me ‘dinner is my favorite meal.’ “

Depending on the style guide and publisher, a space wouldn’t be used between the single and double quotation mark. It is added here for visual clarification.

The Flow of Quotation Marks

Quotation marks typically change the flow of a sentence or passage in two ways.

The first way is when quotation marks are used to draw attention to a specific word or phrase. This often adds emphasis to the marked words, as if they were bolded or italicized. Some publishers may even prefer to use italics over quotation marks. The reader will recognize importance for the marked words, and if the passage is being read aloud, the reader might emphasize the words by saying them louder or adding weight to them.

The second way quotation marks affect the flow of reading is through dialogue. However, the dialogue (and how it is structured, written, and tagged) will determine how the flow changes, not the actual quotation marks themselves. The quotation marks mostly signify that someone is speaking that isn’t the narrator, and how you write what is said will do all the work for flow and pacing.

Rules in Fiction

There are several American English rules that must be followed concerning quotation marks, some of which have already been mentioned. These are:

  • always place periods and commas inside quotation marks
  • almost always place question marks and exclamation points inside quotation marks
  • always place semicolons and colons outside quotation marks
  • use single quotation marks around a quote in dialogue
  • use double quotation marks around dialogue
  • place punctuation after a dialogue tag and before the quotation marks when the dialogue tag is immediately before the dialogue
  • Place a comma, period, or question mark inside the quotation marks when the dialogue tag is after the dialogue

Explanation

Always place periods and commas inside quotation marks

Periods and commas belong inside the quotation marks. This rule applies to quotation marks for all five usages, which are:

  1. to draw special attention to a word or phrase
  2. to mark titles
  3. to turn a word into a noun
  4. to signify someone is talking
  5. to quote someone

For example:

He calls the red barn “Blackie.”

In this example, the period marking the end of the sentence is placed inside the quotation mark instead of after it.

He calls the red barn “Blackie”.

Placing the period outside of the quotation mark is incorrect in American English punctuation rules.

Almost always place question marks and exclamation points inside quotation marks

Like periods and commas, question marks and exclamation points are placed inside quotation marks. Most of the time. There are a few cases in fiction when the question marks and exclamation points are needed outside the quotation marks to convey specific meanings.

The first case is when a character is quoting another character and the question mark or exclamation point isn’t part of the quote. When the quote is in dialogue, the question mark or exclamation point is outside the single quotation mark but inside the double quotation mark. For example:

“Joanna said, ‘Yes’!” he shouted.

or

“Did I hear Joanna say, ‘Yes’?” I asked.

When the quote is part of the narration or internal dialogue, the question mark and exclamation point go outside the double quotation marks. For example:

The noises of the crowd blended into a loud buzz. I looked for Sarah. She stood a few feet away, shouting at me. Did she just say “Come here”?

If the question mark was placed inside the quotation marks, it would change the meaning of what Sarah said. To avoid changing the meaning, the question mark goes outside the quotation mark. The same principle applies to exclamation points.

Always place semicolons and colons outside quotation marks

Semicolons and colons are always placed outside quotation marks, the opposite of periods and commas. This is because the semicolon or colon is not part of the quote. More likely, the semicolon and colon are being used to separate a list or phrase. For example:

The students in the classroom had various answers. They were “red and orange”; “blue, green, and pink”; and “violet.”

or

He said, “I’m ready”: he’d regret that answer the rest of his life.

Most of the time in fiction, instances where semicolons and colons are placed outside of quotation marks can be revised to avoid the needing the semicolon or colon at all. The rule is most commonly used in academics and non-fiction.

Use single quotation marks around a quote in dialogue

When dialogue is quoting someone in American English, use single quotation marks around the quote and double quotation marks around the dialogue. For example:

Jennifer said, “When I asked Thomas what his favorite dinner was, he said, ‘lasagna.'”

This separates the quote from the dialogue and removes the confusion of having multiple double quotation marks. For example:

Jennifer said, “When I asked Thomas what his favorite dinner was, he said, “lasagna.” I responded with, “Ewww. Why would you eat that?””

In this improperly punctuated sentence, all the quotation marks are double. To avoid confusion, the proper punctuation would be:

Jennifer said, “When I asked Thomas what his favorite dinner was, he said, ‘lasagna.’ I responded with, ‘Ewww. Why would you eat that?'”

Use double quotation marks around dialogue

American English requires writers to use double quotation marks around dialogue. This is supported by all publishers and American style guides. Do not use single quotation marks to mark dialogue.

Place punctuation after a dialogue tag and before the quotation marks when the dialogue tag is immediately before the dialogue

Dialogue tags require punctuation between the tag and the quotation mark. When the dialogue tag uses a word that signifies someone is speaking, such as “said,” “replied,” and “whispered,” a comma is used. For example:

Mark said, “I’ll the cab.”

When the dialogue tag involves an action or rather than a word that signifies someone is speaking, a period is used. For example:

Mark adjusted his jacket and hat. “I’ll take a cab.”

Place a comma, period, or question mark inside the quotation marks when the dialogue tag is after the dialogue

If the dialogue tag comes after the dialogue, the appropriation punctuation is placed within the quotation marks as part of the dialogue. For example:

“I’ll take a cab,” said Mark.

“I’ll take a cab.” Mark adjusted his jacket and hat.

“Should I take a cab?” Mark asked.

These examples show what punctuation is needed for each type of sentences and where to place them.

The first sentence requires a comma between dialogue and dialogue tag because the dialogue tag includes a word, such as “said” that signifies someone is talking.

In the second example, there is no specific word signifying who is talking. The dialogue tag uses an action and placement next to the dialogue to show who is talking. When the dialogue tag is an action, then a period is appropriate.

The third example uses a question mark between dialogue and dialogue tag because the dialogue is a question.

American Versus English Quotation Marks

American and British English uses single and double quotation marks differently. In fact, most British English rules pertaining to quotation marks are the opposite. British English prefers to use single quotation marks to signify dialogue and double quotation marks to set apart a quote within dialogue. Additionally, punctuation is placed outside the quotation marks as well. For example:

Jennifer said, ‘When I asked Thomas what his favorite dinner was, he said, “lasagna”. I can’t believe he hates it’.

In this example, the punctuation is placed according to British English usage.

Editing

As you edit your own work or someone else’s, make sure quotation marks and the punctuation surrounding them are used properly and according to the country you are publishing in. In American English, double quotations are preferred for most circumstances and, generally, punctuation goes inside the quotation marks. This is an essential step in copyediting and proofreading. Quotation marks must be used properly, no matter if they are used for dialogue, quotes, marking titles, drawing attention to specific words, and changing the role of a word to a noun.

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