Mechanical errors with quotations fall into a number of areas. On the Top Twenty list, it is error number 4. This error does not appear on the earlier 20 Most Common Errors list. This fact is attributed to the change from 1986 to 2004 in the nature of papers students are writing: from personal essays and textual close studies to research-based essays and arguments, which require the use of some sources and could result in documentation mistakes (Western Washington University wwu.edu).
While grammar is the structure of written and spoken language, mechanics covers the rules of written language, such as spelling, capitalization, and punctuation. So, these errors could include not closing quotations (since quotation marks come in pairs), or they could be not capitalizing properly or not using correct punctuation with the quotation.
First you need to make sure that when you are quoting someone, you are quoting them accurately, whether this is a direct quotation or an indirect one.
Direct quotations repeat people’s remarks in their own words without deviation: Mary said, “I am ready.”
Indirect quotations report speakers’ remarks indirectly: Mary said that she was ready.
Direct quotes require quotation marks so that the speech or text is attributed correctly. Indirect quotes, as you can see in the example above, do not require quotation marks, because you are reporting, not repeating, the actual words spoken.
Using capitalization and punctuation marks with quotations, whether direct quotations (quoting other writers or speakers) or whether writing dialogue in fiction and creative nonfiction (such as memoirs), causes more problems to both my college and my adult ed students. These occur even among those who are avid readers—and thus regularly see models of the format not just for quotation marks, but also for other punctuation and capitalization in quotations.
We use quotation marks when we are quoting other writers or when we are writing dialogue. A good general rule, which covers punctuating direct quotes as well as dialogue, is that commas and periods come before quotation marks.
You can see in the first example of direct quotation that the comma after said and the period after ready precede the quotation marks: Mary said, “I am ready.”
Quotation Marks with Other Punctuation
Semicolons and colons come after, or outside, the quotation marks. Consider these two examples adapted from the APA Style Blog:
At the beginning of the study, participants described their dream recall rate as “low to moderate”; at the end, they described it as “moderate to high.”
Participants stated that they were “excited to begin”: We controlled for participants’ expectations in our study.
Question and exclamation marks can go either inside or outside of quotation marks, depending on the meaning of the sentence.
With dialogue, the use of a question mark is clear when a character or subject asks a question.
“Don’t you mind?” she asked.
Notice that a statement in dialogue would be written like this: “I am ready,” Mary said.
When two marks of punctuation could be placed in the same spot – for example, a comma and a question mark—use only one, the stronger one, or the question mark—as in this case of quoting a question.
When a quotation asks a question, you first decide whether you are repeating the actual words of the question or just reporting in your own words what was asked.
Indirect quote: The referee asked if we were ready.
Direct quote: The referee asked, “Are you ready?”
The direct quote is repeating the actual words of the question, so the question mark comes inside or before the quotation mark.
When the question is the entire sentence and not the quotation, the question mark comes outside the quotation marks.
Did you hear the farmer say, “Don’t feed the animals”?
When both the sentence and the quotation are questions, you use only one question mark, not two. This question mark goes inside the quotation marks: Did the referee ask, “Are you ready?”
Exclamation marks are handled in the same way as question marks.
Using Quotation Marks When Quoted Material Is Within a Quoted Passage
Sometimes you quote a passage which has quoted material within it. In this case, use single quotation marks inside and double quotation marks outside:
“Economic systems,” according to Professor White, “are an inevitable byproduct of civilization, and are, as John Doe said, ‘with us whether we want them or not.’”
American versus British style
There are two main styles of English punctuation, the American (or North American) Style, followed in the United States and Canada, and the British Style, followed in the UK, Australia, and New Zealand. There is a difference in how the mechanics with quotations are handled. For instance, American style uses double quotes (“) for initial quotations, then single quotes (‘) for quotations within the initial quotation as illustrated above.
On the other hand, British style uses single quotes (‘) for initial quotations, then double quotes (“) for quotations within the initial quotation. Here is the same example, written using the British style:
‘Economic systems’, according to Professor White, ‘are an inevitable byproduct of civilization, and are, as John Doe said, “with us whether we want them or not”’.
Notice also that in the British style the final period is placed outside the quotation mark. This is true also of commas. For all other punctuation, the American and British styles follow the same rule that unless the punctuation is part of the quoted material, it goes outside the quotation marks. (Examples from thepunctuationguide.com)
As one resource states, “When we quote other writers, we bring their voices into our arguments. Quotation marks crucially show where their words end and our own begin” (undergrad.stanford.edu). This is important to distinguish our own ideas and voices from those of other authors and sources. Not properly attributing and documenting these outside sources is a serious matter, which we’ll discuss in a future blog.
(Additional material and examples adapted from English 3200 and Line by Line.)