Style Corner: The Uncomfortable World of Speech Punctuation

I’ll admit straight up: speech and quote punctuation is one of my blind spots. It always has been, from the moment I started retraining as a proofreader and copy editor.

It is one of those things where there seem to be so many equally valid variations, and small ones that either matter or don’t. How are we to know which, from a logical point of view?

This blog attempts to bring some sense to the disorder.

To start with, what are the areas of variation?


Single or double quotes?

This is the easy one. Typically British punctuation style is to use single quote marks, with double marks within the single quote if needed. As in this example:

The Prime Minister said, ‘We have all had quite enough of Brexit for one day. The Chancellor told me “enough is enough” and I agree with him.’

The reverse is typically true in American punctuation: double quotes first, single within if needed.

Donald Trump said, “We have all had quite enough golf for one day. The First Lady told me ‘enough is enough’ and I agree with her.”

This British vs American convention is far from set in stone. Many newspapers, for instance, prefer double, even if they are on this side of the pond. And personally (as you will note from this blog) I do too – even though I am also on this side of the pond.

Regardless of that, you’ll notice that this example raises three other questions not related to single or double quotes. That just indicates what a complicated area this is.

  1. Do we use a preceding comma?
  2. Do we use initial capitalisation?
  3. Do we put end punctuation inside or outside (the quote)?

We’ll come to those later.

One final thing on single vs double. Some style guides indicate it is possible to use both as your primary mark for different purposes: e.g. double for direct speech quotation, single for emphasis and other purposes. This is fine but can be complicated to manage and remember as a writer or editor. If dealing with this configuration, take care and pay close attention to whether you’ve got it right in each usage. And even in this case some kind of “quote within quote” instruction (e.g. double then single) will still be needed.

Run on or displayed?

Direct speech can be treated in two ways.

(1) It can be incorporated within the narrative flow of the sentence (i.e. “run on”). For example, Donald Trump is said to have tweeted, “My favourite golf course is Troon but I don’t mind Augusta.”

[Of course he didn’t really, but fake quotes are in.]

(2) It can be represented as a “displayed” block quote, where it is separated from the main narrative with a line space, possibly some indentation and variant font, and (usually, depending on the individual style guide you are following) no quote marks.

For example, Donald Trump is said to have tweeted:

My favourite golf course is Troon but I don’t mind Augusta.

In this displayed block quote case the supplementary questions are:

  1. Quote marks or not (usually no);
  2. Again, preceding punctuation: colon, comma or nothing (it depends but colon is often best);
  3. Again, initial capitalisation (always yes);
  4. Minimum wordcount for a displayed quote (depends on style guide, but New Hart’s Rules mentions 50 words as a possible threshold);
  5. Differential font or styling for the displayed quote: italic or roman, font type and size (again often specified in the style guide, but in general italics should not be used in displayed quotes);
  6. Degree of indentation, centreing and justification (depends on style guide).

That’s a lot of variables to bear in mind.

In or out?

Perhaps the trickiest element from the suite of tricky elements on this topic is whether punctuation (commas, full points/full stops or other) should go inside or outside the end quote mark, where one is used (i.e. in run on quotes).

The rule of thumb tends to be: British English out, American English in.

Donald Trump is reported to have said, “My favourite golf course is Troon but I don’t mind Augusta”, but the report was a lie. [British]

Donald Trump is reported to have said, “My favourite golf course is Troon but I don’t mind Augusta,” but the report was a lie. [American]

Donald Trump is reported to have said, “My favourite golf course is Troon but I don’t mind Augusta”. The report was a lie. [British]

Donald Trump is reported to have said, “My favourite golf course is Troon but I don’t mind Augusta.” The report was a lie. [American]

But various factors overrule this scheme. If the quote is an identifiable full sentence in its own right, like the one in this example, “in” is fine regardless of which side of the pond you are on. Ditto, if it’s not (an identifiable full sentence in its own right), “out” is fine regardless.

But I warn you: it’s not always clear-cut, as in the Trump/Putin example immediately below. As often in editing, consistency is the most important thing.

Preceding comma

You’ll notice that all the Trump examples above, by design, have a preceding comma, i.e. immediately before the quote. This follows Hart’s recommendation.

But as with other elements of this tricky area, there are nuances. If the run on quote is part of an extremely short sentence, a comma is not necessary:

Trump said “Hello dear”.

Similarly, if the run on quote fits snugly into the syntax of the surrounding sentence, a preceding comma would look wrong:

Trump noted with glee that “my tweets are more popular than Putin’s“.

Or should that be:

Trump noted with glee that “my tweets are more popular than Putin’s.”

This is an example where the end-punctuation is really not clear-cut. Strictly, the part in quotes is a sentence in its own right, and the full stop should be inside the quote, based on the logic mentioned earlier. But to British eyes this looks ungainly and many of us would prefer the first variant.

There is a lesson here. How it looks and feels matters. In this kind of situation use what you are comfortable with, as long as you are consistent.

Initial capitalisation

Do you capitalise the first initial of the quote? It depends.

In both cases – run on and block quote – you would usually capitalise the first letter unless the sense is so “run on” (even if you are using a block quote not a run on quote) that a capital initial looks wrong. If it looks wrong, don’t use one. Most of the time, do.

For an example, let’s refer once again to the American president. Trump is reported to have really enjoyed his day’s golf and said that

this was the best day’s golf I’ve ever had, anywhere in the world.

An equally valid alternative, where the quote is not so embedded in the syntax of the surrounding sentence, is when we introduce it with “said” not “said that”. In this case a colon and capital initial seem more apt. For example, Trump is reported to have really enjoyed his day’s golf. He said:

This was the best day’s golf I’ve ever had, anywhere in the world.

These examples I admit are a bit synthetic and unrealistic, for space reasons. You wouldn’t usually use a displayed block quote for such a short extract, but I ask you to bear with me and suspend your disbelief. After all, you wouldn’t want me to write 50 words about Trump’s golf day just to fulfil the New Hart’s Rules threshold for a block quote!

Question and exclamation marks

If you use a question mark or exclamation mark in or with direct speech, does it go in or out?

And – if in – would you ever put an additional comma or full stop (or colon, semicolon, further question mark or exclamation mark) outside the quote mark also?

The answer to the first question is: if the question or exclamation mark clearly belongs to the quote sense-wise, put it in(side the quote). Otherwise put it out(side the quote).

I heard that Donald Trump asked the First Lady, “Which golf course is better, Troon or Augusta?” [Inside]

Do you know how many times I have seen Donald Trump tweet “Troon is better than Augusta”? [Outside]

The answer to the second question is: it depends. If it looks and feels right, yes you can.

Trump expressed utter astonishment when the First Lady asked, “Can we play at Augusta today?”! [Inside and outside]

Typically you would try to avoid it. But if you need to, do it. Follow the sense.

Have a Hart

This has been a detailed treatment of a tricky area. As always, I defer to New Hart’s Rules (pp 160-165 of the 2014 second edition) for a far better and more comprehensive treatment than I managed here.

Prism Clarity Wordcloud