Inverted commas, otherwise known as quotation marks, speech marks or quotes, are used for direct quotations as well as to signify other words like slang and technical terms. Let’s look at some of the main uses:
1) When to use inverted commas
1.1 to show a direct quotation
Here are some examples:
‘What are you looking at?’ said John.
This is the sort of construction that is very common in fiction.
A more formal example is:
Smith Wrote: ‘I am against military intervention in this situation.’
When writing essays, unless the quote is very long, it is often preferred for the quote to run on from the rest of the text, as in:
I echo Smith when I say that ‘I am against military intervention in this situation.’
This flows better, but is not always practical if a long, detailed quote is needed.
If we have quotes within quotes there are two systems.
We can have single inverted commas with double inverted commas nested inside, as in:
Smith wrote ‘When I tried to debate him he merely looked down at me and said “I have better things to do.”’
Or, we can use double quotes on the outside with single in the middle, as in:
Smith wrote “When I tried to debate him he merely looked down at me and said ‘I have better things to do.’”
1.2 To signify jargon, idioms, technical terms used for the first time or to be ironic
Inverted commas are also sometimes used to signify jargon, idioms, technical terms used for the first time or to be ironic.
A example of a jargon term in inverted commas might be:
I find it hard to accept the ‘collateral damage’ that resulted from the war.
Here the jargon term ‘collateral damage’ (which basically means accidental injuries or deaths of civilians, or damage to property) is put in inverted commas to show the jargon term being used. In this example, there is also something sardonic in its use, with the likely implication that the writer thinks the term is a bit of jargon to get around saying that innocent people have been killed.
We also might see inverted commas when a new term is coined, although this will only be the first time it is used. For example, if we imagine this is the first time this was said:
I have described the observation that individuals change their behaviour in response to being observed as ‘The Hawthorne effect’.
If it is then used later, the inverted commas can be removed; they are just there to highlight the fact this is a new term.
People also often use inverted commas to make ironic, or sarcastic, comments. For example:
Yeah, that was a really ‘enlightening’ experience.
We can imagine this after someone coming home from a talk which they found awful. This sort of thing can easily be over-used, and people even do it a lot in speech, raising their fingers to make the inverted commas sign.
2) Punctuation within quotes
There appear to be two main ways of approaching punctuation marks within quotes. One of them is more related to aesthetics, and this is used more in America, and the other is more related to logic, and this is used more in the UK. Having said this, there does seem to be some variance, so it is worth checking the style guide of wherever you are writing for.
The aesthetic style uses full stops and commas within the quotation mark, at all times. So we have:
He said ‘it is not you, it is me,’ but what did this mean?
Notice that the comma after ‘me’ is within the quotation marks. As for an example with a full stop:
She told me she had already read ‘1984.’
Notice here how the full stop is within the quotation marks. Both of these methods are neater than putting the mark on the outside, which is what I mean by ‘aesthetic’.
In the logical version, commas and full stops only go inside the quotation marks if they are part of the quote, or outside it if they are not (though it appears the full stop rule is followed more than the comma one in practice in the UK). So, we get that comma after ‘me’ now on the outside, as in:
He said ‘it is not you, it is me’, but what did this mean?
And the full stop would be on the outside of ‘1984’ because this wouldn’t have a full stop at the end if it were standing alone, as it is just a phrase:
She told me she had already read ‘1984’.
However, the comma and full stop would be inside in the following example:
‘To be fair,’ said John, ‘I would have done the same thing.’
The reason for this is that this comma and full stop would have existed in the sentence even if ‘said John’ wasn’t there, as in:
To be fair, I would have done the same thing.
As for semi-colons, colons and dashes, they appear to be placed outside the quote most of the time.
An example of a semi-colon outside the quote is:
There are ‘five days of hell ahead of us’; I wish I had never read that description of this trip before coming.
There are some contentious ones though. For example:
‘He was always very nice to me’, she said; ‘nevertheless, I treated him terribly.’
In this example, the semi colon comes after ‘said’ to link the two clauses. However, the original quote would have been written like this:
He was always very nice to me; nevertheless, I treated him terribly.
Note how the semi-colon in the original quote is after ‘me’. If we put that back in, we would get:
‘He was always very nice to me;’, she said, ‘nevertheless, I treated him terribly.’
Using a comma and a semi-colon next to each other like this is a probably a bit less common because it is more messy than the other method, which could make it unclear.
Colons follow a similar path, generally being outside the quotation marks. For example:
The following students are to be awarded the school’s first ‘creativity award’: John Smith and Jane Smythe.
However, again, there are contentious ones, as in:
‘I want the following things’, she said, ‘apples, oranges, pears and grapes.’
The original quote of this would probably be:
I want the following things: apples, oranges, pears and grapes.
This could lead one to write:
‘I want the following things:’, she said, ‘apples, oranges, pears and grapes.’
Again, this is uncommon because it is a bit messy.
Dashes will also generally be outside the commas, as in:
Jane said ‘look over there’ – by the time I had looked back she was gone.
Question and exclamation marks generally use the logical method, meaning they are inside the quotation mark if they were originally, or outside if they weren’t.
Let’s look at an example of a question mark, starting with one outside the quotation marks:
Should we really use the term ‘collateral damage’?
Note how ‘collateral damage’ doesn’t have a question mark inside it, so it is on the outside in the above quote. To clarify, the question mark relates to the overall question, and is not within the original quote.
An example of a question mark on the inside is:
‘Where have you been?’, she said, flaring her nostrils.
Note how the question mark is within the original quote ‘where have you been?’
Nevertheless, the logical method is often strayed from when we have both a question mark in the question and one at the end of the overall sentence, as in:
Shouldn’t we all be asking the question ‘how can we prepare for the coming technological changes?’
Here we are missing a question mark for the whole sentence. The logical method would be to write:
Shouldn’t we all be asking the question ‘how can we prepare for the coming technological changes?’?
Though, again, this is often left out due to aesthetics.
That is all for inverted comma; let’s look at the ellipsis next.
NEXT: 10) Ellipsis