In Other [People's] Words... part 1

Contributed by Janette Siu on 21 November 2008 at 15:43

Quotations are a nefarious part of written English that often slyly trips up unsuspecting college students. However, the college student can be assured of victory over quotations by remembering just a few simple rules.

1) Lead into a full-sentence quote with a comma. This means that if you're borrowing only a phrase or part of a sentence from someone else's words, you should not use a comma. You might write this in your paper:

In my interview with Old McDonald, he stated that his cows are "very friendly."

NOT like this:

In my interview with Old McDonald, he stated that his cows are, "very friendly."

However, if you're using an entire sentence of what Old McDonald said, you should use a comma before the quote, like this:

In my interview with Old McDonald, he said, "My cows are very friendly."

NOT like this:

In my interview with Old McDonald, he said "My cows are very friendly."

2) Periods and commas always come before the ending quotation mark. This is true even when there was not a period or comma in the passage you are quoting. For example, Old McDonald might have written you an email that said, "The milk cows are probably the most useful creatures on the farm because they produce both milk and calves." In your paper, you might decide to write this:

Old McDonald told me that the milk cows are "probably the most useful creatures on the farm."

Or this:

Old McDonald wrote, "The milk cows are probably the most useful creatures on the farm," explaining that they provide him two things: milk and calves.

But you should NOT write this:

Old McDonald told me that the milk cows are "probably the most useful creatures on the farm".

You should also NOT write it like this:

Old McDonald wrote, "The milk cows are probably the most useful creatures on the farm", explaining that they provide him two things: milk and calves.

3) Colons and semicolons always come after the ending quotation mark. For example, you could say:

Old McDonald agreed that cows come in "a variety of colors": black, brown, white, and combinations of those three.

Or you could write:

Old McDonald agreed that cows come in "a variety of colors"; he told me, though, that his favorites are the brown and white ones.

But you should NOT write:

Old McDonald agreed that cows come in "a variety of colors:" black, brown, white, and combinations of those three.

NOR should you write:

Old McDonald agreed that cows come in "a variety of colors;" he told me, though, that his favorites are the brown and white ones.

4) Question marks and exclamation points come before the ending quotation mark only if they were in the original material. However, if you put a question mark or exclamation point before the quotation mark, there is no need to put additional punctuation. Suppose Old McDonald had said, "What made you so interested in my cows?" You could write in your paper:

Old McDonald turned to me and asked, "What made you so interested in my cows?"

You should NOT write:

Old McDonald turned to me and asked, "What made you so interested in my cows?".

The same thing is true if you are continuing the sentence after the quote, like this:

Old McDonald's question, "What made you so interested in my cows?" made me think about why I had decided to write this paper.

You should NOT write:

Old McDonald's question, "What made you so interested in my cows?", made me think about why I had decided to write this paper.

If the question mark or exclamation point is not part of the quote, though, it should come after the ending quotation mark, like this:

I quickly found out that the bull did not qualify as one of the cows that was "very friendly"!

You should NOT write:

I quickly found out that the bull did not qualify as one of the cows that was "very friendly!"


See "In Other [People's] Words" Part 2 for rules on altering quotes and using long quotations; then check out Part 3 for advice on when to use quotations and how to cite them!

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