Quotation Marks / Inverted Commas

Quotation Marks or Inverted Commas (known more informally as Speech Marks) are used in writing to show what someone actually says. They separate actual speech from comment, in other words.

John F. Kennedy said, “Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.“

As Mitch Hedberg said, “My fake plants died because I did not pretend to water them.“

Here the exact words spoken (i.e. direct speech) are put inside quotation marks.

This article looks at how we make quotation marks, how we use them and finally how they affect ELT students and TEFL.


There are slightly different ways of writing the actual quotation marks themselves, all equally valid.

single: ‘…‘
double: “…“

Very generally speaking in American English we use double quotes and in British English we use single quotes. But, this is generally speaking and you’ll find lots of Americans with single quotes and lots of British people with double quotes. The only point to remember is to be consistent. Choose single or double and stick to it.

If there is a quote within a quote, then the other style is used:

“Have you ever read,“ Joseph began, “the Sherlock Holmes story, ‘A Study in Scarlet‘?“

‘Have you ever read,‘ Joseph began, ‘the Sherlock Holmes story, “A Study in Scarlet“?‘

On a computer, quotation marks are usually straight, but some in the past in print people would use curly quotes to enclose the speech. These days, however, it doesn’t matter one way or the other whether quotation marks are straight or curly and the only people who complain are probably the kind of people who also complain about loud music, horseless carriages going too fast, and how things were better in the good old days before electricity.


By far the most common use of quotation marks is to show the actual words someone says (make sure your students don’t use them for reported speech). However, they can also be used:

to show irony

Look at this amazingly “clever“ invention to turn lead into gold.

It’s not a clever invention, of course, it’s ridiculous. If we weren’t writing we might even use “air quotes” to demonstrate how silly the idea was.

titles of books, films, etc…

Did you see “Inception“ – wow, what a film!

Have you ever read “À la recherche du temps perdu“?

unusual use of a word

When a word isn’t used in its normal sense it can take quotation marks to show this.

Although dogs can’t “speak“ to us as such, they can let us know what they’re thinking.


My name is Brian “Dangerous” Smith and along with Dave “the Killer” Johnson we intend to drive across Asia in a 1955 VW Beetle.

Quotation Marks and TEFL

For EFL and ESL students, one of the most common errors in punctuation is how quotation marks are used around other punctuation.

With direct speech the usual pattern is that other punctuation comes inside the quotation marks:

“To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune,“ she began, “but to lose both looks like carelessness…“

For a detailed look at punctuating direct speech, see Punctuating Direct Speech‏‎.

Other than that, the position of other punctuation depends really on whether it refers to the whole sentence or just the part in quotation marks.

Did he just say, “I love you“?
Almost, he shouted, “I love you!“ to the entire crowd!

Note that in some languages quotation marks are in the form of chevrons or guillemets as they are known; explaining to students how we make them in English isn’t usually a problem.

Είπε «Η γριά κότα έχει το ζουμί!»

She said, “An old chicken makes good broth!“

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Posted in Sentence Structure.

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