English As She Is Writ - part sixteen

'Inverted commas' or "quotation marks"

Inverted commas are sometimes known as quotation marks.

These can be single, ‘like this’, or double, “like this”. Single quotation marks are more usual now in British English. In North America double quotation marks are more usual.

In non-fiction, quotation marks indicate that the words between them are not the words of the writer, but were written or said by someone else. In fiction, quotation marks serve the additional function of indicating that the words between them are spoken by a character in the story.

  • Who can forget Kennedy’s Cold War speech, in which he declared ‘Ich bin ein Berliner‘?
  • As the government report points out, ‘. . . none of the available options was acted upon’.
  • Gideon stared at me. ‘What are you looking at?’ he said. ‘Never seen a guy drunk before?’

Quotation marks should be reserved for indicating quotations and speech. Attempting to use them for other purposes risks ambiguity and confusion. Putting inverted commas round a word, phrase or sentence does not make that word, phrase or sentence any more emphatic; it just looks as though it’s something someone said.

In informal contexts some people like to place inverted commas around a short phrase in order to cast doubt on the truth or believability of the phrase, as if to tell the reader that untrustworthy sources made the remark. Such a usage might look something like this:

  • It was clear that Henry, the big idiot, was ‘in love’ with Rosalind.

This usage when writing (and its speech equivalent, the wiggling of your fingers to suggest quotation marks in the air) is best avoided. It can lead to misunderstanding: did Henry, or another person, say that he was in love with Rosalind, or is it someone else’s guesswork? It’s imprecise. And there are better ways – some more direct, some more subtle – to suggest that a person’s statements are not to be trusted.

Punctuation around speech causes a lot of problems. The crucial thing to remember is that the words spoken are not necessarily the entire sentence in your text. These examples should show how to do it.

  1. ‘I should try one of these grapes.’
  2. He offered me a bunch of grapes. ‘I should try one of these.’
  3. He offered me a bunch of grapes. ‘I should try one of these,’ he said.
  4. He said, ‘You really should try one of these.’
  5. He repeated: ‘You must try one of these.’
  6. ‘I should try one of these,’ he said. ‘They’re from North Africa.’
  7. ‘If you try one of these,’ he said, ‘you’ll find they’re delicious.’
  8. The repetition was tiresome. He said nothing but ‘try one of these’ and ‘they’re delicious’.
  9. I asked, ‘Why are you so anxious for me to eat a grape?’
  10. Why did he say, ‘You must eat a grape’?
  11. ‘Excellent!’ he exclaimed. ‘You are a grape aficionado.’

Note the position of the full stops in the above examples. In every case the full stop is placed – as you would expect – at the end of each sentence. Where the sentence consists only of spoken words (as in examples 1 and 2), or only spoken words and an explanatory ‘he said’ or equivalent (as in examples 4 and 5), or (as in example 7) begins and ends with spoken words that constitute a single sentence, the full stop is placed within the final set of quotation marks; where the sentence consists of more than just speech (or more than just speech and a ‘he said’ or equivalent) the full stop is placed right at the end, even if the final word is speech (as in example 8).

In example 9 the spoken words are a question, so the question mark is within the inverted commas; in example 10 a non-spoken question contains words of speech that do not in themselves make a question – in this case the question mark is placed outside the inverted commas.

In the unusual event that a person’s speech contains within it words spoken by another person, you use double quotation marks within single quotation marks, like this:

  • Caroline laughed. ‘He is such a fusspot,’ she said. ‘Last night he advised me to “be very careful on the stairs”. But,’ she added, ‘he is charming in his way.’

A word or two of advice: the best verb to use when someone says something is the verb ‘say’. It’s inconspicuous, it’s entirely unsurprising, and therefore it allows the reader to focus uninterruptedly on the spoken words. There are a few other verbs of speaking that can be useful: murmur, mumble, shout, exclaim, cry, whisper, drawl, shriek and others – used sparingly these can introduce or report speech while indicating the manner in which the words were spoken.

You can also occasionally use rather more abstract verbs that nonetheless indicate speech. For instance:

  • ‘Let’s go for a swim,’ she suggested.
  • ‘I’d rather not,’ he responded, after a few moments.

There are some verbs of speech that I would hardly ever use, however, to introduce or report speech: expostulate, for instance, and fulminate, and pontificate, come to mind. Words such as these are too grandiose for what is a simple job. They might be used for comic effect, I suppose. And as for ‘he ejaculated’, as used all too frequently in the works of Arthur Conan Doyle: don’t. Just don’t.

A person cannot utter speech using a verb that does not imply the utterance of speech. No one can smile a sentence, or grin a few words. Just try talking while you’re grinning. You see? It’s not easy. ‘Come in! It’s good to see you!’ he laughed. Really? He said all that while laughing? He must be some kind of ventriloquist. ‘I can’t believe he would do such a thing,’ she frowned. You what? Are we to believe that she said those words with the lines on her forehead? A person can’t speak words using a facial expression.

Mainly, stick with ‘he said’ and ‘she said’.

Or don’t. Often, when writing dialogue, you can do without any indication of who is speaking. For instance, once it is established that the context is a police stake-out, you might write dialogue such as this:

  •                 ‘We got the joint surrounded,’ the Lieutenant shouted. ‘Come out with your hands up, Scarface.’
  •                 ‘Come and get me, copper,’ the gangster called back. ‘You’ll never take me alive.’

This would be more immediate and punchy if written like this:

  •                 ‘We got the joint surrounded. Come out with your hands up, Scarface.’
  •                 ‘Come and get me, copper. You’ll never take me alive.’

It is, after all, pretty obvious who is speaking each line of dialogue. Entire long passages of conversation between two people can be written without any ‘he said’ interruptions – as long as it’s clear who spoke first.

I should also mention that if it is clear who is talking you can do away with inverted commas:

  •                 – We got the joint surrounded. Come out with your hands up, Scarface.
  •                 – Come and get me, copper. You’ll never take me alive.

Presenting speech like this was once common in French novels, for instance. It’s rarely used in written English, but it is possible. However if you’re going to deviate from conventional punctuation around speech you must take care to do so consistently throughout the entire text.

I should make it clear that while the whole of this blog is intended to offer advice and guidance rather than hard and fast rules (because punctuation has no hard and fast rules), this part in particular should be regarded as my personal preferences. The conventions of punctuation vary from one English-speaking territory to another, and even within a single such territory, and in no area is that more true than in the area of punctuation around speech. The advice I’ve set out above will pass muster for most mainstream publishers and newspapers that use British English; if you’re writing for a particular magazine, book publisher, newspaper or web site, ask to see its writers’ guide.

I have now, in sixteen blog posts, and with only a few diversions along the way, covered all of the most-used punctuation marks in written English. Posts may now become less frequent, but there will be some, and they will be on the subject of English – as she is writ. 

The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.