Punctuation Study Guide for the English Basics

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Quotation Marks (“ and ‘)

Quotation marks are used to denote portions of text that are someone else’s exact words. Quotation marks are used around dialogue, direct quotes from another source, phrases, or words. (You do not need to use quotation marks for summaries or paraphrasing that you put into your own words, though those sources should always be cited to give that person credit for this idea of theirs that you found amazing.)

One of the biggest questions that arises is where to put other punctuation when using quotation marks. Here are some guidelines for punctuating dialogue:

  • Periods and commas always go inside the quotation marks, even if they are a part of the overall sentence and not just tied to the quote.
    • Mrs. Tran said, “Please be quiet and listen.”
    • When he asked what she wanted for dinner, she said, “Pizza,” then “Chinese,” and finally “Sushi.”
    • “Our specials today,” the waiter explained, “are grilled catfish, Cajun chicken, or fresh pasta with greens.”
  • When you are using a direct quote, the punctuation for that quote goes inside the quotation marks. If the punctuation is a period, however, and the sentence is not over, that period is replaced by a comma (see the fourth example, below).
    • “Marcus, can you please turn up the heat?” Janell asked.
    • “Stop running up and down the stairs!” Aunt Jean yelled.
    • Jamal responded, “She hit me first!”
    • “Please wait,” Karen pleaded, “I’ll just be a minute.”

[In the last example, Please wait would have probably ended with a period. However, since the sentence is not over yet, we replace that period with a comma and save the period for the very end of the sentence.]

  • Unless they are part of the original quotation, all other punctuation marks go outside the quotation marks. These two sentences vary drastically depending on the placement of the punctuation:

    • Wasn’t it President Kennedy who said, “Forgive your enemies, but never forget their names”?

    • Wasn’t it President Kennedy who said, “Forgive your enemies, but never forget their names?”

When the question mark is outside the quotation marks, it is the writer asking the question about this quote from Kennedy. When the question mark is inside the quotation marks, it is Kennedy asking a question, which then does not match the verb said and messes up the whole sentence.

  • If there is a quote within a quote, then you indicate that by using single quotation marks (‘).

    • “Can you believe she told me, ‘No, thanks,’ when I offered her a ride home in the pouring rain?” Malcolm said, incredulously.

    • Kara contributed, “I love the line that said, ‘You can make excuses, or you can make it happen.’ Isn’t that so inspirational?”

Aside from direct quotes, quotation marks can also be used with technical terms or terms or expressions used in an unusual, non-standard, sarcastic, or ironic way. If they are used within dialogue, they turn into single marks (see the fourth example, below).

  • He was “pretending” to play tea party with his daughter, but we all knew he really enjoyed that time with her.

  • The “skirmish” mentioned briefly on the six o’clock news was actually an all-out brawl between protesters and armed police wherein three people were injured and dozens arrested.

  • The recent earthquakes registering in Oklahoma may be a result of “fracking,” injecting water, sand, and chemicals into the rockbed at high pressure in order to squeeze the oil and gas to the surface and thus leaving the ground unstable.

  • “Hey, Joe! We saw your ‘girlfriend’ at the mall buying socks.”

Quotation marks can be used in place of parentheses to set off translations from other languages.

  • Her knowledge of two Japanese words, kon’nichiwa, “hello,” and Fūdo, “food,” will only get her so far on her trip to Tokyo.

Quotation marks should be used around people’s nicknames whether inserted in the middle of their name or coming after their name.

  • Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson

  • Joseph Jeffrey Jackson or “Shoeless Joe”

  • Karl “The Mailman” Malone

  • William “The Refrigerator” Perry

  • Michael “Air” Jordan

Quotation marks can be used around titles of shorter-length pieces (essays, poems, short stories, articles) or components of a larger whole (song titles from a particular album, chapter titles in a book, individual episode titles of a longer-running series, articles from a newspaper).

  • Cheryl read the article “Toxins in our Midst” from Friday’s Chicago Times.

  • Have you heard the Adele song, “Cold Shoulder”?

  • “Sonnet 17” may be one of the best written sonnets.

Quotation marks are used to show that you have included someone else’s exact words into your writing (which is fine, as long as you give credit to your source). The only part that should be in the quotation marks, however, should be the actual words of that other person and none of your own.

For example, The weather forecaster said, “that there will be rain tonight” but I don’t think so. This quote is inaccurately quoted and doesn’t make sense in the context of the sentence. If it wasn’t a direct quote then the wording would work (The weather forecaster said that there will be rain tonight, but I don’t think so.), but if you are going to use a quote, it has to be exactly what was said and in a way that fits the context of the sentence. To be correctly quoted, it should look like this instead: The weather forecaster said, “there will be rain tonight after midnight” but I don’t think so.

So make sure that you do not put quotation marks around your introduction to the quote, around your own words, or around paraphrased text (ideas that come from another source but which you “translate” into your own words).

Apostrophe (’)

An apostrophe is that mark that looks like a flying comma. It serves one of two main purposes: (1) to serve as a placeholder for the letters that are omitted in a contraction or (2) to show possession.

Apostrophes in Contractions

When you are using an apostrophe to create a contraction, think of it as a replacement for the letters you are taking out to condense the word.

  • It’s a hot day today. (It’s is a contraction of it is so the apostrophe is replacing the i in is.)

  • I’m going to have a glass of lemonade. (I’m is a contraction of I am so the apostrophe holds the place of the a.)

  • They should’ve remembered to take water. (should’ve is a contraction of should have so the apostrophe is replacing the ha part of have.)

Warning: Be careful with contractions. When we speak, we tend to ignore basic grammar conventions for convenience, to save time, or just because we are not cognizant that we are making the mistakes. With contractions, you need to know what letters you are leaving out to keep from inadvertently using incorrect grammar when you are writing and speaking. For example:

  • “Here’s your menu; I hope you enjoy your meal.”

In this case, here’s, which is a contraction of here is, makes sense. You could spell the whole thing out and correctly say, Here is your menu; I hope you enjoy your meal.

But watch what happens in this sentence:

  • “Here’s the meals you ordered.”

Ack! In this sentence, here’s doesn’t grammatically work. You would not say, “Here is the meals you ordered” because that statement has incorrect subject-verb agreement (there are multiple meals which means the verb must be changed to the plural form are). It should be “Here are the meals you ordered.” But there’s no contraction for here are (can you imagine how messy that would look and sound—here’re?) so in this case, using an apostrophe to create a contraction wouldn’t work.

This is why it’s important to be aware of what words you are actually joining together and which letters you are replacing the apostrophe so you can test it to make sure it is grammatically acceptable.

Apostrophes to Show Possession

Generally, the rule is to add an apostrophe and an s to any singular noun to show possession, whether that noun ends in s already or not.

  • Dot’s favorite toy was worn and threadbare in many spots.

  • Mort’s laughter filled the room.

  • This is the owner’s key.

  • Jesus’s backpack was thrown in the corner.

To create the possessive form of a plural noun, add only an apostrophe if the word already ends in s and add both an apostrophe and s if it does not.

  • The twins’ parents were called when they got sick at school.

  • The cows’ pasture was green after all of the rains.

  • Our children’s future is the most important thing.

  • The women’s team was expected to do fairly well in the Olympics.

One test of the correct placement of an apostrophe is to think of its curved shape as “pointing” to who or what something belongs to. In the sentences above, things belong to the twins (not twin), cows (not cow), children (not childrens), and women (not womens).

If two nouns in a sentence share joint possession, only one apostrophe is used.

  • Are you going to Phil and Sue’s house tonight?

  • Leila borrowed Scott and Jackie’s car.

But, if each noun each holds sole possession (they each have one of whatever is being possessed), they each need an apostrophe.

  • Bob’s and Mike’s hammers were both purchased at the same store.

  • Both Mara’s and Malik’s cars had damage after the accident.

Occasionally, an apostrophe is used to form a plural, but only if it’s needed in order to clarify something that might otherwise be misinterpreted. Unless the apostrophe is needed to avoid confusion, leave it out.

  • “Her spelling error involved using three a’s in the word Hawaii.” (Without the apostrophe, a reader might read the word as instead of plural of the letter a.)

  • “Henry earned two As and three Bs on his report card.” (Here, it would be obvious that we are talking about the plurals of A and B because there would not otherwise be capital letters in the middle of a sentence.)

Apostrophes should not be used in dates or to make plural nouns.

  • The bowling alley has been there since the 1970s.

  • The 1980s saw a rise in juvenile crime.

  • The salon is closed Sundays and Mondays.

Personal pronouns (his, hers, ours, yours, theirs, its, whose, oneself) never take apostrophes.

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