The most misused and confused punctuation marks? Quotation marks have my vote. I have two theories as to why.
The first is academic; the second is more a matter of mental illness.
First, Americans have the Brits to blame for our confusion (and they have the former colonists for theirs). The British use single quotation marks, when Americans use double quotation marks and we each reverse when using quotes within quotes. The Brits are also consistent in their placement of punctuation, while Americans are not. For example, the Brits place periods to the left of the citation, while we opt for the right. Example: Americans = “Over 22% were sterile” (Hampton 34). British = “Over 22% were sterile.” (Hampton 34) For more of American-British differences, check here.
Secondly, educated students and adults have access to a vast amount of correct and incorrect use of mechanics and grammar rules. With the Internet our publishing standards have declined as most of us do not hire copy editors, or God forbid use Spell Check and/or Grammar Review to publish on the Web. As is often the case, professionals such as teachers and editors are exposed to so many repeated mistakes that they truly begin to question what is right and what is wrong. As a teacher of 30-something years and author of numerous spelling and grammar, usage, and mechanics books, I would hazard to guess that I’ve seen as many mistakes using quotation marks as I’ve seen correct usage. I truly begin to doubt myself sometimes.
I distinctly remember a late afternoon, sitting alone in my classroom in Sutter Creek, California. I was teaching eighth grade English and I had one more essay to grade before hopping on my motorcycle to head home. The student spelled thier in his first sentence. I had a brief panic attack, thinking that the student must be right and that I had just red-circled at least thirty thiers on other student papers. I actually had to look it up in a dictionary. The older we get, the more mental illness of this sort sets in. We get confused about quotation marks because we so often see them abused. Check out this their, there, they’re cartoon to help you remember correct usage and spelling.
For additional use of quotation marks in academic research, I highly recommend Purdue Writing Lab’s The Owl.
Here’s the 22 quotation marks rules from The Pennington Mechanics Manual to give you the help you need. Want the whole manual including 22 comma rules, 22 capitalization rules, 22 other punctuation rules, 22 quotation marks, italics and underlines, and 22 Modern Language Association (MLA) citation formats? Get The Pennington Mechanics Manual PDF here. The author (authority) of these mechanics rules is Mark Pennington, publisher of Teaching Essay Strategies designed to teach students the Common Core W.1 argumentative and W.2 informational explanatory essays with downloadable e-comments, and the newly released Grades 4-8 Teaching the Language Strand, designed to help students catch up and keep up with grade-level Standards in grammar, usage, mechanics, spelling, and vocabulary.
Teaching Essay Strategies
The Pennington Mechanics Manual: 22 Quotation Mark Rules
1 Double Quotation Marks Use double quotation marks to title parts of whole things, short things, or things which can’t be picked up from a table. Specifically, enclose titles of book chapters, articles, songs, videos, short poems, documents, reports, and short stories within double quotation marks. Example: The best chapter is titled “Mad Men.”
2 Double Quotation Marks for Special Use Words or Phrases Use double quotation marks to enclose words or phrases used in a different way than the norm. Example: With “friends” like that, who needs enemies? Use double quotation marks for technical terms. Example: The politician argued against “pork belly politics.”
3 Double Quotation Marks for Translation Double quotation marks or parentheses are used to enclose a translation. Example: The work was muy duro “very hard.”
4 Double Quotation Marks for Nicknames When used in the middle of someone’s full name, a nickname is enclosed in double quotation marks. Example: George Herman “Babe” Ruth
5 Single and Double Quotation Marks for Numbers When numbers are used for measurement, single and double quotation marks are used to show differences in number sets. Examples: The young woman stood 5’9” tall.
6 Double Quotation Marks in Dialogue Use quotation marks before and after dialogue with commas placed to the left of the quotation marks. Ending punctuation goes inside (to the left) of the closing double quotation marks. Begin a new paragraph for each new speaker. Examples:
———She said, “Call me.”
———“If I call,” he said, “it’ll be too late!”
———“So text me,” she replied.
7 Multiple Dialogue Sentences Separate speaker tags from multiple sentences used in a dialogue. Examples: “Call him tomorrow,” John urged. “Then text me what he says.” “Call him tomorrow. Then text me what he says,” urged John.
8 Dialogue Ending a Paragraph Writers may choose to add dialogue to the end of a paragraph if the paragraph specifically relates to the speaker of the dialogue or the subject to which the dialogue refers. Example: Tom is so unpredictable. You never know how he will react. First, he said that he would not visit. Later, he texted me to call him that night, but I don’t think I will. “I’ll call him tomorrow, instead,” I said out loud.
9 No Punctuation before Dialogue or Direct Quotations If the quoted words flows directly without a pause from the first part of the sentence, no punctuation should be used. Examples: We asked him and he said “okay.” The author thought that “the evidence was quite clear” (Levy 76).
10 Period Placement with Uncited Direct Quotations Periods are placed inside (to the left) of ending double quotation marks for figures of speech and informal quotations. This is the rule even when ending the sentence with a quoted title. Examples: Everyone knows that “the apple does not fall far from the tree.” The music critic “loved everything the band performed.” She especially enjoyed “In the Shade of the Old Apple Tree.”
11 Period Placement with Cited Direct Quotations Periods are placed outside (to the right) of the parenthetical citation following a direct quotation. Examples: According to the author, “Few remained to help” (Zaner 45). Ezekiel saw “what seemed to be four living creatures,” each with faces of a man, a lion, an ox, and an eagle (Ezek. 1.5-10).
12 Question Marks and Exclamation Points with Cited Direct Quotations Question marks and exclamation points go inside (to the left) of the double quotation marks, if part of the quoted sentence, but outside (to the right) of, if not. Example: “Why should we care?” the author asked (Peavy 22). When asking a question about a quotation, remove the ending punctuation, add an ending quotation mark, and then follow with the question mark. Example: In The Declaration of Independence, did Jefferson say “…all men are created equal”?
13 Semicolons with Cited Direct Quotations Semicolons go outside (to the right) of the closing quotation marks. Example: George exclaimed, “I made twenty sales today”; however, George said he had only twelve.
14 Colons with Cited Direct Quotations Colons replace commas following beginning speaker tags to introduce long sentences or passages. Example: The researcher explained: “No one knew whether the emergency doctor knew how to handle the medical crisis or not.” Colons go outside the closing quotation marks. Example: “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country”: these words were President John F. Kennedy’s most memorable.
15 Removing Words from Direct Quotations When removing words from a direct quotation, use the ellipsis (…) inside the double quotation marks. Only remove information that is irrelevant to the quotation. Example: Did Madison say “…in order to form a more perfect union…”?
16 Long Quotations longer than three lines (not three sentences) should be indented one tab space as a block text. Block quotations are not enclosed with double quotation marks. The citation is placed following all ending punctuation, even periods.
———No one knows me
———and no one seems to understand
———the things that I feel
———and the things that I don’t. (Pennington 43)
17 Indirect Quotations Indirect quotations do not need quotation marks because the ideas are paraphrased. Only indirect quotations of a general nature may be used without citations. Example: She told me everything about college life. Indirect quotations of any online or printed sources must be cited in the same manner as direct quotations, but do not need quotation marks. Indirect quotations still require citations. Example: Most credited General Washington’s inspiring leadership (Adams 34).
18 Single Quotations within Double Quotations Use single quotation marks before and after a title that is punctuated by quotation marks or before and after a quotation that appears within the double quotation marks enclosing dialog or a direct quotation. Examples: He asked, “What did Dr. King mean in the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech by the phrase ‘free at last’?”
19 Italicizing and Underlining Titles Italicizing and underlining are used for the same purposes. Italics are used in word processing; underlines are used in handwriting. Use italics or underlines to title whole things, long things, or things which can be picked up from a table. Specifically, italicize or underline titles of books (except religious books such as the Koran, albums/CDs, movies, television shows, games, magazines, newspapers, plays, blogs, and works of art. Example: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is the last book in the series.
20 Italicizing and Underlining Uncommon Words and Phrases Use italics or underlines to refer to an uncommon word or phrase. The scientist warned of the dangers of fracking−the process of injecting liquid at high pressure beneath the earth’s surface to force open existing fissures to be able to extract oil or gas.
21 Italicizing and Underlining References to Words Use italics or underlines to refer to words within a sentence. Examples: By manage, she really meant control.
22 Italicizing and Underlining Foreign Words and Phrases Use italics or underlines to refer to a word or for an uncommon foreign words or phrases; use italics or underline instead. Examples: By manage, she really meant control. She certainly did not practice laissez-faire management.