You should never have a quotation standing alone as a complete sentence, or, worse yet, as an incomplete sentence, in your writing. IVCC's Style Book explains this concept well with a good analogy that describes quotations as helium balloons. We all know what happens when you let go of a helium balloon: it flies away. In a way, the same thing happens when you present a quotation that is standing all by itself in your writing, a quotation that is not "held down" by one of your own sentences. The quotation will seem disconnected from your own thoughts and from the flow of your sentences. Ways to integrate quotations properly into your own sentences are explained below. Please note the punctuation: it is correct.
There are at least four ways to integrate quotations.
Example: In "Where I Lived, and What I Lived For," Thoreau states directly his purpose for going into the woods: "I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived."
Example: Thoreau's philosophy might be summed up best by his repeated request for people to ignore the insignificant details of life: "Our life is frittered away by detail. An honest man has hardly need to count more than his ten fingers, or in extreme cases he may add his ten toes, and lump the rest. Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity!"
Example: Thoreau ends his essay with a metaphor: "Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in."
This is an easy rule to remember: if you use a complete sentence to introduce a quotation, you need a colon after the sentence. Using a comma in this situation will most likely create a comma splice, one of the serious sentence-boundary errors. Be careful not to confuse a colon (:) with a semicolon (;).
Example: In "Where I Lived, and What I Lived For," Thoreau states directly his purpose for going into the woods when he says, "I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived."
Example: "We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us," Thoreau says as he suggests the consequences of making ourselves slaves to "progress."
Example: Thoreau asks, "Why should we live with such hurry and waste of life?"
Example: According to Thoreau, "We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us."
You should use a comma to separate your own words from the quotation when your introductory or explanatory phrase ends with a verb such as "says," "said," "thinks," "believes," "pondered," "recalls," "questions," and "asks" (and many more). You should also use a comma when you introduce a quotation with a phrase such as "According to Thoreau."
Example: In "Where I Lived, and What I Lived For," Thoreau states directly his purpose for going into the woods when he says that "I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived."
Example: Thoreau argues that "shams and delusions are esteemed for soundest truths, while reality is fabulous."
Example: According to Thoreau, people are too often "thrown off the track by every nutshell and mosquito's wing that falls on the rails."
Notice that the word "that" is used in two of the examples above, and when it is used as it is in the examples, "that" replaces the comma which would be necessary without "that" in the sentence. You usually have a choice, then, when you begin a sentence with a phrase such as "Thoreau says." You either can add a comma after "says," or you can add the word "that" with no comma.
Example: In "Where I Lived, and What I Lived For," Thoreau states that his retreat to the woods around Walden Pond was motivated by his desire "to live deliberately" and to face only "the essential facts of life."
Example: Thoreau argues that people blindly accept "shams and delusions" as the "soundest truths," while regarding reality as "fabulous."
Example: Although Thoreau "drink[s] at" the stream of Time, he can "detect how shallow it is."
When you integrate quotations in this way, you do not use any special punctuation. Instead, you should punctuate the sentence just as you would if all of the words were your own.
All of the methods above for integrating quotations are correct, but you should avoid relying too much on just one method. You should instead use a variety of methods.
Notice that there are only two punctuation marks that are used to introduce quotations: the comma and the colon (:). A semicolon (;) never is used to introduce quoted words.
Notice as well the punctuation of the sentences above in relation to the quotations. Commas and periods go inside the final quotation mark ("like this."). For whatever reason, this is the way we do it in America. In England, though, the commas and periods go outside of the final punctuation mark.
Semicolons and colons go outside of the final quotation mark ("like this";).
Question marks and exclamation points go outside of the final quotation mark if the punctuation mark is part of your sentence--your question or your exclamation ("like this"?). Those marks go inside of the final quotation mark if they are a part of the original--the writer's question or exclamation ("like this!").
Remembering just a few simple rules can help you use the correct punctuation as you introduce quotations. There are some exceptions to the rules below, but they should help you use the correct punctuation with quotations most of the time.
And remember that a semicolon (;) never is used to introduce quotations.
These rules oversimplify the use of punctuation with quotations, but applying just these few rules should help you use the correct punctuation about 90 percent of time.
This page was last updated on January 08, 2018. Copyright Randy Rambo, 2006.