Manuscript Writing: How To Use Quotation Marks Correctly

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Quotation marks are like flags: they draw attention, but their use is governed by several rules and conventions, such as the exact colors, design, and proportions of the flag; when it should be hoisted and when it should be taken down; when it should be flown half mast, etc. Quotation marks are signals, and its meaning depends on whether the quotation marks are single (‘ and ’) or double (“ and ”), where they are placed relative to terminal punctuation –  either before or after it – and whether they appear alone or as a pair. (Terminal punctuation refers to only three marks that can end a sentence, namely the period, the question mark, and the exclamation mark.)  Although these conventions are clear as far as English is concerned, authors whose first language is not English often find them confusing. Not using quotation marks around text that you have reproduced word for word from another paper can even lead to your being accused of plagiarism, although all you did was to reproduce an exact definition in order to comment on it.

Here are some tips on to how to use quotations marks correctly in research papers. Although authors working in the social sciences and especially in the humanities tend to use quotation marks more often than those working in the physical and biological sciences, the conventions remain the same.

Single quotation marks or double quotation marks?

The choice is straightforward at one level: most publishers, especially US publishers, insist that their authors use double quotation marks as default; however, many UK publishers, including the Oxford University Press and the Cambridge University Press, use single quotation marks as default. However, both reverse the default for quotations within quotations: US publishers switch to single quotations marks whereas OUP and CUP switch to double quotation marks. This is shown in the following example.

The common US convention for quotation marks. As Eric Kandel points out in his book The Disordered Mind, in saying “ ‘I think, therefore I am’ . . . Descartes had it backward: in actuality, ‘I am, therefore I think.’ ”

The common UK convention for quotation marks. As Eric Kandel points out in his book The Disordered Mind, in saying ‘ “I think, therefore I am” … Descartes had it backward: in actuality, “I am, therefore I think.” ’

Incidentally, also note that both single and double quotation marks can occur together, without any text in between, as in the examples above. It is a good practice to separate them with a non-breaking space, which is typically narrower than the ordinary word space.

Also note that the common US practice is now being increasingly accepted because it leaves the single quotation marks to perform their other duties, such as marking omissions (as in Don’t for Do not) and indicating possession (John’s car).

Closing quotation marks and terminal punctuation: which to put first?

Here too, authors are confronted with the US/UK divide, and yet again, the US convention seems to be winning out because it is simpler, namely always put the closing quotation mark outside, or after, the terminal punctuation. The UK convention, however, is more logical because it considers whether the terminal mark is part of the quotation or not: if is not part of the quotation, put the terminal mark outside, or after, the closing quotation; if the terminal mark is part of the quotation, put the mark inside, or before, the closing quotation mark. Again, this distinction is best explained using a pair of made-up examples (see also Figure 1).

Assume that these are Broca’s actual words: “We speak with the left hemisphere because people with injured left brains find it difficult to speak.”

Terminal punctuation inside the quotation mark. Broca said, “We speak with the left hemisphere.”

Terminal punctuation outside the quotation mark. Broca said, “We speak with the left hemisphere”.

SituationUS styleUK style
Terminal mark part of quoted matter.”.”
Terminal mark not part of quoted matter.””.
Difference in UK & US Style Usage of quotation marks

Figure 1: Relative positions of the period and closing quotation marks in US and UK style.

Quotation marks and commas: which to put first?

The same convention applies to commas: in the US style, commas always come inside the quotation marks; in the UK style, not necessarily, although in this case too the US style is becoming more common. Here are two examples in both of which the source of the quotation is sandwiched between two parts of the quotation. The same text is used here as used in the previous examples. Note that the original text was without a comma.

US style (always) and UK style (sometimes): “We speak with left hemisphere,” said Broca, “Because people with injured left brains find it difficult to speak.”

UK style (at other time): “We speak with left hemisphere”, said Broca, “Because people with injured left brains find it difficult to speak.”

Although the above sounds complicated, it is rare – at least in the physical and biological sciences – that you would be required to use quotation marks thus. More often than not, simply enclosing the text of the quotation should be enough, followed by the source of the quotation as a citation. The citation can be in the form of a number or, in the author–date style citations, the name(s) of author(s) and the year of publication.

Other uses of quotation marks

Quotation marks – typically single quotation marks irrespective of the flavor of English – are also used even when nobody is being quoted. For example, when the word in the source language appears in italics and is immediately followed by its translation, as in ‘Two major cropping seasons in India are kharif “summer” and rabi “winter”, which are typical of a monsoon-dominated climate.’ Note that in this example, single quotation marks begin and end the quotation and double quotation marks are used within the quotation. However, you can reverse the pattern if you wish to follow the US practice.

Quotation marks can indicate unfamiliar words, neologisms (newly coined words), and ‘nonce’ words, which are also new words but coined not for continued use but within, say, a given article.

Quotation marks are also used for indicating debatable or arguably inaccurate usage or irony or special usage (sometimes referred to as ‘scare quotes’ or ‘sneer quotes’ although it is best to avoid such use in research papers or in academic writing generally).

When not to use quotation marks?

Remember that quotation marks are not the same as the prime (single or double) or the marks used as symbols for minutes and seconds in giving geographic coordinates or to indicate feet and inches: for example, do not write 51030’26” N when you mean 51°30’26” N, and do not write 6’5” when you mean 6’5” (6 feet 5 inches). These tips and the explanations will help you use quotation marks more confidently—provided you pay attention to the relevant details. And if you have ever wondered how the US conventions of using quotation marks differ from the UK conventions, this article throws some light on that too. Finally, if you’re looking for quick, high-quality editing support by subject-matter experts, try out Editage’s Advance Editing service. With two levels of in-depth editing to improve readability, polish the English language, and ensure technical terms are used accurately, this professional service is a great choice for researchers readying their manuscript for journal submission.

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