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Punctuating Quotations

These examples are cited in MLA style, but similar rules apply in all styles.

Two basic rules will help you use the correct punctuation when a sentence has both a quotation and a parenthetical citation.

  1. The end quotation mark should be placed immediately after the last word of the quotation.
  2. The period should be placed immediately after the citation.

This sentence shows these marks placed correctly:

Whereas American myth states that Columbus alone thought the world was round, in actuality, "few people on both sides of the Atlantic believed in 1492 that the world was flat" (Loewen 56).

Notice the basic pattern here:

 ...flat" (Loewen 56).

  • Last word of quotation
  • End quotation mark
  • Space
  • Left parenthesis
  • Citation (no space before or after)
  • Right parenthesis
  • Period

Punctuating without a citation

When you are not citing a source immediately after a quotation, the punctuation (usually a comma or period) is placed inside the quotation mark, like "this." It does not go outside, like "this". These sentences show these marks placed correctly:

When the last class of the spring semester ends, many people are reminded of the lines of Alice Cooper's famous chorus: "School's out for summer! School's out forever!"

When Kanye West interrupted Taylor Swift at the MTV Music Awards, saying rudely, "I'm gonna let you finish," he probably had no idea what a backlash his actions would inspire.

When history textbooks portray famous figures as "pious perfect creatures without conflicts, pain, credibility, or human interest," they make those figures seem less human and thus less interesting (Loewen 19).

Special cases in punctuating quotes

If you are using the word "that" to introduce a quotation, do not also use a comma. These two sentences show the two options.

James Loewen states that "Socialism is repugnant to most Americans" (33).

James Loewen states, "Socialism is repugnant to most Americans" (33).

When the quotation ends with ellipses, you must also have an end period. The ellipsis marks do not end the sentence.

Many agrarian Native American tribes moved west because "[i]ntensified warfare and the slave trade rendered stable settlements no longer safe..." (Loewen 106).

When the quote ends with a question mark or exclamation point, include it inside the quotation marks. Those punctuation marks add meaning to the sentence. Then, include the citation and a period at the end.

James Loewen asks, "Why should children believe what they learn in American history, if their textbooks are full of distortions and lies?" (297).

If the quotation you are using includes a quoted word or phrase, use single quotation marks around the quotation within the quotation.

When asked about Helen Keller's adult life, "many students venture that Keller became a 'public figure'  or a 'humanitarian,' perhaps on the behalf of the blind or deaf" (Loewen 20).

 Single quotation marks are also used when dialogue appears within a larger quote.

Jake describes his method for getting rid of unwanted friends: "Once you had a drink, all you had to say was, 'Well, I've go to get back and get off some cables,' and it was done" (Hemingway 19).

Notice how the double quotation marks enclose the entire quotation, while single quotation marks enclose the dialogue within. Thus, the rule is "Doubles on the outside, singles on the inside." If the entire quotation is wholly dialogue, only double quotation marks are necessary.

Changing a quotation

For the most part, you must copy quotations word for word; you may not change words unless you indicate those changes with special punctuation marks.

To leave unnecessary words out of a quotation, you must use ellipsis points. This may be done to shorten a quotation to its necessary content, never to change the meaning of a quotation. In the following two examples, the first gives the whole quotation, but the second gives a shortened version.

According to the author of Lies My Teacher Told Me, "Some textbooks cover certain high points of labor history, such as the 1894 Pullman strike near Chicago that President Cleveland broke with federal troops, or the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist fire that killed 146 women in New York City, but the most recent event is the Taft-Hartley Act of fifty years ago" (Loewen 201).

According to the author of Lies My Teacher Told Me, "Some textbooks cover certain high points of labor history . . . but the most recent event is the Taft-Hartley Act of fifty years ago" (Loewen 201).

A writer might choose the second version if the two examples in the middle of the sentence are extraneous to the main point. When you use ellipsis points, though, be sure that the quotation still reads clearly.

To add or change words in a quote, you must use square brackets. This may be done to clarify an unclear word such as "it" or an unclear reference to a person, such as "he." In this case, you may replace the word with the appropriate clarification. In this example, an unclear pronoun is clarified:

Although not many people know it, "She [Helen Keller] joined the Socialist party of Massachusetts in 1909" and remained a socialist until the end of her life (Loewen 20).

You may also use square brackets to add necessary words, either for clarification or to avoid an awkward sentence.

Loewen writes that, following inspiration from Columbus, "Spain made the encomienda [forced labor] system official policy on Haiti in 1502..." (63).

Helen Keller turned to Socialism because "[she] learned that the power to rise in the world is not within the reach of everyone" (qtd. in Loewen 200).

In the first example, the square brackets clarify a word in another language. In the second example, the square brackets change the word "I" to "she" to make the quotation integrate into the sentence more logically.