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You May Quote Me On That: Quotation Marks And Italics

by Diane Sandford

Punctuation problems are often a prime indicator of poor writing.

-- Bryan A. Garner, Garner’s Modern American Usage (Oxford, 2003), page 652.

Poor punctuation is a distraction that can single-handedly derail an author’s message and credibility. Punctuation marks not only indicate how a writer wants words grouped together for meaning and emphasis, but they also serve as visual guides that can tell the reader immediately who said something or what type of subject is being discussed. Consider a simple direct quotation (a citation or an excerpt):  

“We are fine,” said Robert, “and they are fine as well.” 

Notice that the quotation marks enclose both the comma and the period. In British punctuation, the comma and the period would follow the quotation mark.

Look at this sentence:

Robert asked, “How are you?”

The final period is omitted, because end punctuation is never doubled. The question mark is inside the quotation marks, because it is part of the quotation. Question marks, colons, and semi-colons that are not part of a quotation are always placed outside the quotation marks.

Time for a quiz! A comma needs to be placed after “Billy” in the following sentence. Should it go inside the quotation marks or outside the quotation marks?

“Billy” Mr. Roberts said “will go first.”

Since the comma is not part of the quotation, you would think it should go outside the quotation marks, which is the convention in British English. But in American English, the comma goes inside the quotation marks:

“Billy,” Mr. Roberts said, “will go first.”

When we wish to write about a particular word, should we use italics or quotes—that is, should it be “widget” or widget? The answer is either form is correct, but be consistent.

Quotation marks may be applied to words being used in a special sense—for example, Robert is a “priest” of grammar. (Of course, the Grammar Goddess would prefer the term “so-called priest”!) In this particular case, words used as words may also be italicized.

In dialog, it’s customary to indent each new speaker’s sentences. This is for clarity only. In short conversations, omit the indenting.

And let’s not forget single quotation marks, which are used primarily to enclose a quotation within a quotation.

                        “Why did you yell ‘fire’?” he asked.

Complete literary works published individually require italics. This applies to book titles, Web sites, films, journals, magazines, newspapers, and plays. Nearly every other short literary work takes quotation marks: newspaper and magazine articles, short stories, book chapters, poems, song titles, television shows, and radio shows. Don’t forget to italicize the names of spacecraft, aircraft, ships, and trains.

Foreign phrases should be italicized. Caesar’s famous veni, vidi, vici means “I came, I saw, I conquered.” Yet most Latin abbreviations in common use are not italicized: etc., e.g., i.e., vis., et al., and vs. There is no need to italicize or use quotation marks for foreign words that have become part of the English language: