Let’s Learn English, Lesson 6
Speech Marks or Inverted Commas
The online Oxford Dictionaries website gives the following
In direct speech, various punctuation conventions are used to separate the quoted words from the rest of the text: this allows a reader to follow what’s going on. Here are the basic rules:
The words that are actually spoken should be enclosed in inverted commas:
‘He’s very clever, you know.’
In British English, the usual style is to use single inverted commas but it is not wrong to use double ones:
“He’s very clever, you know.”
Every time a new speaker says something, you should start a new paragraph:
‘They think it’s a more respectable job,’ said Jo.
‘I don’t agree,’ I replied.
There should be a comma, full stop, question mark, or exclamation mark at the end of a piece of speech. This is placed inside the closing inverted comma or commas.
‘Can I come in?’ he asked.
‘Just a moment!’ she shouted.
‘You’re right,’ he said.
‘I didn’t expect to win.’
If direct speech comes after the information about who is speaking, you should use a comma to introduce the piece of speech, placed before the first inverted comma:
Steve replied, ‘No problem.’
If the direct speech is broken up by information about who is speaking, you need a comma (or a question mark or exclamation mark) to end the first piece of speech and a full stop or another comma before the second piece (before the inverted comma or commas):
‘You’re right,’ he said. ‘It feels strange.’
‘Thinking back,’ she said, ‘he didn’t expect to win.’
‘No!’ he cried. ‘You can’t leave now!’
Grammar and Style in British English: a Comprehensive Guide for Students, Writers and Academics
The gsbe website above goes further into describing the use of inverted commas. It states
If a writer wishes to use the words of another writer, or even her own from another source, the passage
is enclosed in quotation marks. Short quotations of up to forty words usually appear in the same paragraph in which they are announced –
Albert Einstein once said, ‘The ideals which have always shone before me
and filled me with the joy of living are goodness, beauty and truth’.
The practice for longer quotations varies. In publications such as newspapers, books and magazines, the house style usually requires the same
rule: one paragraph unless the quotation itself requires more –
Albert Einstein once said, ‘The ideals which have always shone before
me and filled me with the joy of living are goodness, beauty and truth. To
make a goal of comfort or happiness has never appealed to me; a system
of ethics built on this basis would be sufficient only for a herd of cattle.
‘Without the sense of collaborating with like-minded beings in the pursuit
of the ever unattainable in art and scientific research, my life would have
There are three points to note here. Firstly, when a new paragraph is required, it is single-spaced and has its first line indented by a few spaces.
Secondly – and this applies to all quotations wherever they appear – quotation marks are required to open every paragraph, but to close only the
last. If the first paragraph in our last example had been closed with a quotation mark, the reader would assume that the second was a new quotation.
Thirdly, the comma used immediately before the quotation is optional. It is traditional to use one, but some authorities regard it as redundant.
In word-processed scripts and some publications, on the other hand, the practice is to use block quotations in which the entire quotation is indented
(not just the first lines) and the quotation marks omitted –
Albert Einstein once said
The ideals which have always shone before me and filled me with the joy
of living are goodness, beauty and truth. To make a goal of comfort or
happiness has never appealed to me; a system of ethics built on this basis
would be sufficient only for a herd of cattle.
Without the sense of collaborating with like-minded beings in the pursuit
of the ever unattainable in art and scientific research, my life would have
In publications, the quoted paragraphs are sometimes written in a different, often smaller, font from that of the main text. We often also see a colon
used in place of the optional comma before the quotation, but the practice is incorrect when, as above, the beginning of the quotation continues the
sentence begun by the introductory phrase, Albert Einstein said…
In dialogue, a new paragraph is required for each change of speaker, irrespective of length –
Inspector Crawford sat on the sofa, resting an arm along the back.
‘What were you doing last Thursday evening?’, he asked.
‘Thursday? That’s when I go to my aerobics class’, said Joanne.
‘And you attended last Thursday?’
His eyes, locked on hers, revealed nothing and Joanne hoped he was
sufficiently experienced not to misinterpret her blush.
For quotations within quotations, double marks are used if the outer ones are single, and single marks if the outer ones are double –
‘Reason, Hume believes, is “the slave of the passions”.’
The gsbe website also says
With Other Punctuation Marks
The question of whether to place other punctuation marks inside or outside quotation marks is a controversial one, both the British and American
practices being to some extent at variance with logic. The rule would seem obvious: other punctuation marks appear inside the quotation marks
when they are part of the quotation itself, and outside when they are not. It is one of life’s enduring mysteries, however, why neither British nor
American conventions follows this simple principle.
In the case of commas, both versions of the language adhere illogically to the rule that they always appear inside the closing quotation mark –
‘Tact,’ said Abraham Lincoln, ‘is the ability to describe others as they
This is how both versions of the language would present this sentence (except for the substitution of double quotation marks in the case of American
English). But it can be seen at a glance that the first of the two commas is ungrammatically placed. The comma after tact, that is, is actually the first
of a pair that isolate the writer’s comment, said Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln’s actual words contain no commas at all –
‘Tact is the ability to describe others as they see themselves.’
As part of the writer’s sentences, then, rather than Lincoln’s, the comma should be placed outside the quotation marks –
‘Tact’, said Abraham Lincoln, ‘is the ability to describe others as they
With full stops, British and American practices differ, the British this time being more consistent with common sense –
Abraham Lincoln said, ‘tact is the ability to describe others as they see
Abraham Lincoln said, “tact is the ability to describe others as they see
What we have done here is to recast the sentence so that it essentially belongs to the quoting author, not the person quoted. The full stop, therefore,
should end the entire sentence (as in the British version), not just the quoted passage (as in the American).
The use of question marks is a little more sensible in both British and American English. They appear correctly outside the quotation marks when the
question is the quoting writer’s –
Was it Shakespeare or Donne who said, ‘No man is an island, entire of
and inside the marks when the quotation is the question –
The police officer said, ‘May I see some identification, sir?’
But things get complicated again when a quoted question appears in a sentence that is itself a question –
Was it Cain or Abel who said, ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’?
Although a little clumsy looking, this is the logical punctuation: two questions, two question marks. But both British and American English diverge
again and use just one question mark, placing it inside the quotation marks –
Was it Cain or Abel who said, ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’
To its credit, however, the Modern Humanities Research Association insists on the logical use –
Why does Shakespeare give Malcolm the banal question ‘O! by
The problem for the writer, of course, is which method of punctuation to use. The choice can be only hers but, if she intends to publish, it is unlikely
that the logical versions will survive the editor’s pencil, whether British or American.