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Punctuating Quotes In Essays

Shorthand: “pq”

In all academic writing,

Quotations must have appropriate punctuation.

In order to determine how to punctuate the phrase that comes before a quotation, you need to know whether the phase is an independent clause.  Here, you have three options:

1. When the quotation is merged into a clause, no punctuation is necessary to divide them.

Roosevelt spoke of December 7, 1941, as “a day that will live in infamy.”

2. If the quotation is preceded by a form of a word like say, reply, or answer, that word is followed by a comma.

She knows she is no longer safe, saying, “I feared for my Safety in this wicked House” (28).

3. If a complete sentence or independent clause precedes the quotation, a colon is the appropriate mark of punctuation.

She knows she is no longer safe: “I feared for my Safety in this wicked House” (28). Also make sure that you place quotation marks correctly with respect to other punctuation marks and with citations.

1.  The final period or comma goes inside the quotation marks, even if it is not a part of the quoted material, unless the quotation is followed by a citation.  If a citation in parentheses follows the quotation, the period follows the citation.  If a superscript footnote number is used, it follows the period and the quotation marks. 

a) The Portland vase is “blue porcelain,” according to Compson (435).

Comma is within the quotation marks; the period follows the citation.

b) Macbeth says, “Life's but a walking shadow” (5.5.24).

Citation follows the quotation marks; period follows the citation. Note: The MLA Handbook recommends the use of Arabic numerals rather than Roman numerals for designating acts and scenes in plays. However, some instructors still prefer Roman numerals. Check with your instructor if you are uncertain which to use.

c) As E. H. Carr has written, “The serious historian is the one who recognizes the historically conditioned character of all values, not the one who claims for his own values an objectivity beyond history.”1

2. A colon or semicolon is placed outside the quotation marks (regardless of whether or not it exists in the quoted material).

a) Correct:

Roberts (137) mentions “the divine right of kings”; the phrase did not become current in English until the late seventeenth century.

b) Incorrect:

Mr. B says that Pamela “may be thawed by kindness;” (180).

Even though the semicolon is present in the sentence quoted, it should not be in the quotation.

Correct: Mr. B says that Pamela “may be thawed by kindness” (180).

3. A question mark, exclamation point, or dash is placed within the quotation marks when it is part of the quoted material.

Otherwise it is placed outside the quotation marks.

a) “How do I love thee?” asks the sonnet. “Let me count the ways.”

The first quotation is a question; the question mark is part of it.

b) What is the meaning of the expression “eschew obfuscation”?

The quotation is not a question; the question mark goes outside the quotation to indicate that the whole sentence is the question.

c) There is great pathos in King Lear’s cry, “O reason not the need!” (2.4.259).

An exclamation point within the quotation is followed by quotation marks, then by a parenthetical citation. The period after the citation ends the sentence.

4. Do not place any mark of punctuation inside the quotation marks at the beginning of a quoted phrase, and do not use an ellipsis(...) at the beginning of the quotation.

a) Incorrect:

King Lear refers to his daughter Goneril as a “detested kite” and as “wolvish” (1.4.253, 259).

b) Correct:

King Lear refers to his daughter Goneril as a “detested kite” and as “wolvish” (1.4.253, 259).

For more information on quotations, refer to Using Sources and Quotations.


Quoting the words of others


There are two ways to incorporate quotations in your writing: run-in quotations and block quotations.



Run-in quotations


Short quotations can generally be run in to the main text using quotation marks.


In his novel White Noise, Don DeLillo neatly summarizes the materialist philosophy: “It’s all this activity in the brain and you don’t know what’s you as a person and what’s some neuron that just happens to fire or just happens to misfire.”



Block quotations


Longer quotations should be set off from the main text, and are referred to as block quotations. Because the quoted material is set off from the main text, it is not necessary to use quotation marks. Style varies, but at a minimum a block quotation should have a bigger left-hand margin than the main text. In contrast to the main text, a block quotation might also have a bigger right-hand margin, be in a smaller or otherwise different font, or have reduced line spacing.


In Walden, Henry David Thoreau makes the case for following one’s dreams:


I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him; or the old laws be expanded, and interpreted in his favor in a more liberal sense, and he will live with the license of a higher order of beings.


How do you determine if your quotation is short (allowing it to be incorporated into the main text) or long (requiring a block quotation)? It depends. For academic writing, the Modern Language Association (MLA) requires block quotations whenever the quoted material exceeds four lines, while the American Psychological Association (APA) requires block quotations for anything exceeding forty words. If you are not subject to a specific rule, establish your own (fifty words is reasonable) and use it consistently throughout your document.



Introducing the quoted material: when to use a comma, colon, period, or no punctuation at all.




The comma is the mark most frequently used to introduce quoted material.


The flight attendant asked, “May I see your boarding pass?”


Buddha says, “Even death is not to be feared by one who has lived wisely.”




A colon should be used when the text introducing the quoted material could stand as a sentence on its own. It is also the mark most commonly used to introduce a block quotation.


In Food Rules, Michael Pollan summarizes his extensive writing about food with seven words of advice: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”




A period can be used to introduce a block quotation when the introductory text stands on its own as a complete sentence. In such cases, a colon is also proper—and sometimes preferable.


No punctuation


When the quoted material flows directly from your introductory text, no punctuation should be used before the quotation. A very short quotation may also be introduced without punctuation. The unpunctuated lead-in is most commonly used with run-in quotations, but it is also appropriate for introducing block quotations that flow directly from the introductory text.


In her closing statement, the prosecutor spoke forcefully of the defendant’s “callous disregard for human life.”


Though marshaling little evidence, the authors claim that “over half of British prisoners come from single-parent households.”


We tried to persuade him, but he said “No way.”


The phrase “be that as it may” appears far too often in this manuscript.



Quotes within quotes


When a run-in quotation contains quotation marks within the quoted material itself, use single quotation marks in their place. When the material being quoted contains a quotation within a quotation (i.e., something in single quotation marks), use double quotation marks.


The author’s final argument is less convincing: “When Brown writes of ‘interpreting the matter through a “structuralist” lens,’ he opens himself to the same criticism he made earlier in his own paper.”