Some years ago, I put together for my journalism classes a guide to the use of quotations. I realized it could use a little revision, so here’s an updated version.
I. The Care and Use of Quotes
1. What Are Quotes and Why Use Them?
A direct quote is the material presented inside of quotation marks. It tells the reader that these are some exact words a speaker said. If (and this is a big if) the source is qualified to speak about the subject, a quote is a good—probably the best—way to get opinionated, funny, emotional, metaphorical, personal, ungrammatical, hyperbolic, and generally colorful language into your story. Quotes also enliven a story by bringing in (metaphorical) voices. Also, editors and readers expect them.
Note: if someone is not qualified to speak on the subject, or if the person says something banal, predictable, boring, clichéd or in any way ignorant, do not use that quote. This is also true if the quote contains merely factual information. (See Paraphrase.)
2. Accuracy of Quotes
The short answer is that if you’re using quotation marks, it’s not permissible to change anything the speaker said, such as including in the quote anything he or she did not say.. However, it’s okay not to include meaningless filler words and sounds like “um” and “you know.” Beyond that, different organizations have different rules and policies on quote fidelity, so when in doubt, consult with your editor.
3. Paraphrases and Indirect Quotes
An indirect quote is a paraphrase or summary of what someone said. It is not surrounded by quotation marks, and therefore you are not indicating that the person used those exact words (though the person may well have done so). Indirect quotes are used to convey purely factual information that would not lose anything if expressed in “journalistic” language.
Poor use of direct quotes: “The university will be closed tomorrow,” Jones said.
Paraphrase is preferable: The university will be closed tomorrow, Jones said.
Or: Jones said the university will be closed tomorrow. Note: no comma after “said.” (You might also notice the absence of word “that” after “said.” Use “that” before an indirect quote if you need it to prevent ambiguity or confusion. )
4. How Long?
In newspaper writing, quotes should be short. It’s the “sound bite idea,” borrowed from radio and TV. That means that quotes should generally be one or two sentences long. To go beyond that, the quote must be really, really good.
Quite often, a mediocre or poor quote can turn into a good quote by losing one or two sentences. (There is absolutely no ethical problem with trimming a quote, as long as you’re not twisting it to mean something other than what the speaker intended.)
5. How Many Quotes?
Quotes are like cayenne pepper or some other strong spice: a little goes a long way, and too much is a disaster. Quotes are very tempting; for one thing, they take up a lot of space. Resist the temptation. The more quotes you use, the worse the story usually is. Rule of thumb: at least twice as many paragraphs should have not have quotes as have them. Put another way, a quote has to earn its way into your story. If a potential quote doesn’t add substantial value, just say no and don’t use it.
6. Quotation Marks, Commas and Periods
In all circumstances (except in the United Kingdom and certain countries that were formerly in the British Empire), commas and periods always go INSIDE quotation marks, never outside. This is also true for titles and “air-quote” style expressions (which should be avoided anyway—see “Dos and Don’ts of Feature Writing.
Wrong: Winning the game was “very lucky”, Brunswick said.
Wrong: His favorite movie is “Inception”.
NEVER use single quotes (‘like this’) except to indicate a quote within a quote.
7. Attribution Verbs
All quotes have to be attributed—that is, you have to say who said them.
For the verb of attribution, almost always use “said.” Other words come off as hokey and forced (“stated,” “asserted,” “gasped,” “smiled,” “quipped,” “remarked,” etc.) or amount to editorializing. “Claimed” implies you doubt the person; “admitted” implies you think he or she is guilty of something. “Asked,” “replied” and “recalled” are okay when appropriate in the context.
Use past tense (“said”), not present (“says”), except in features and magazine stories.
8. Provenance of Quotes.
When readers encounter a direct quote and attribution, they will rightfully assume that the person made that statement in an interview with the writer of the article, i.e., you. If that’s not the case, you have to make that clear. For example, if the quote was previously published (not desirable but sometimes unavoidable), you have to write something like:
“My job is to ask the questions, not get the answers,” Stewart said in a 2008 New York Times interview.
9. E-mail quotes
E-mail is a great resource, especially for obtaining facts. However, if you want to get any nuance or insight from your source, it’s a poor substitute for face-to-face or even telephone interviews. If you use a quote from an e-mail exchange, you must make that clear, for example, with an attribution like “said in an e-mail.” For subsequent quotes from that e-mail exchange, it’s okay to merely say “said.”
II. The Mechanics of Quotes
1. Standard form:
“That is the most ridiculous thing I ever heard,” Jones said. (Or “he said.”)
Wrong: “That is the most ridiculous thing I ever heard.” Jones said.
Wrong: “That is the most ridiculous thing I ever heard” Jones said.
Wrong: “That is the most ridiculous thing I ever heard”, Jones said.
2. In quotes of two or more sentences, put attribution after first sentence:
“That is the most ridiculous thing I ever heard,” Jones said. “It’s mind-boggling. More sentences can follow.”
Wrong: “That is the most ridiculous thing I ever heard. It’s mind-boggling,” Jones said.
Wrong: “That is the most ridiculous thing I ever heard,” Jones said, “It’s mind-boggling.” (The comma after “said” turns this into a comma splice.)
3. When speaker needs to be identified or described:
“That is the most ridiculous thing I ever heard,” said Alex Jones, a journalism professor.
In this case, the verb goes before the i.d. of speaker, because otherwise the result would be clunky: “That is the most ridiculous thing I ever heard,” Alex Jones, a journalism professor, said. Otherwise, put name or pronoun first and avoid “said Jones” or, especially, “said he.”
In such cases (long description of speaker), attribution can also go before the quote:
Jones, a journalism professor, said, “That is the most ridiculous thing I ever heard.” Note: uppercase “T” in “That.”
Occasionally, a long or dramatic quote is preceded by a colon rather than a comma, as in:
Smith said: “I deplore everything the president stands for.”
4. Setting up quotes
Quotes almost always have to be “set up” by a sentence in your own words that introduces the idea of the quote without being too bland or too similar to it. Never use a key word from the quote in the setup.
Too similar (and repeats word):
Coach Brett Brown said the 76ers have a long distance to travel in order to be a playoff contender.
“This team has a long way to go,” he said.
Set-up doesn’t do enough:
Coach Brett Brown had some comments about the 76ers.
“This team has a long way to go,” he said.
Just right (and note use of understatement, which is often effective):
Coach Brett Brown made it clear he wasn’t completely satisfied with the 76ers.
“This team has a long way to go,” he said.
5. Multiple quotes
Two quotes can’t come right after each other. Instead they must be separated by material from you, the writer.
“This has been the most beautiful autumn ever,” said Kelly Jones, a sophomore.
“I love it when the leaves change color,” said sophomore Audrey Martin.
“This has been the most beautiful autumn ever,” said Kelly Jones, a freshman.
Sophomore Audrey Martin agreed. “I love it when the leaves change color,” she said.
6. “Orphan” quotes
Every quote has to be attributed, even if it’s clear from the context who said it.
Wrong: Sophomore Bill Kent thought the film wasn’t Tarantino’s best work. “It sucked.”
Right: Sophomore Bill Kent thought the film wasn’t Tarantino’s best work. “It sucked,” he said.
However, a single quote should only be attributed once.
Wrong: “Halloween is the best holiday of the year,” junior Alicia McConnell said. “It’s all candy, all the time,” she added.
Right. “Halloween is the best holiday of the year,” junior Alicia McConnell said. “It’s all candy all the time.”
If you are using a relatively long quote, or want to emphasize a short one, it makes sense to give the quote its own paragraph. Make sure to include attribution.
Sophomore Bill Kent thought the film wasn’t Tarantino’s best work
“It sucked,” he said.
8. Partial quotes
Partial quotes can be as short as one word or as long as a phrase, but are less than a complete clause or sentence. These can be effective, but too many of them create a herky-jerky sensation, so use sparingly (no more than two or three per story), and mainly for vivid words and phrases. They are not preceded by a comma and the first word is lower-casd.
Right: Jones described the proposal as “mind-boggling.”
Wrong: Jones said it was, “mind-boggling.”
9. Quote within a quote
“The guy said to me, ‘Your money or your life,’” Jones recalled. (Hint: people tend to naturally be good storytellers, so when your source says what someone ELSE says, that’s often a sign that this is a good quote.)
10. Attribution in middle of sentence
This should be used only when the end of a sentence is dramatic, surprising, or funny, and only at natural pauses:
Not dramatic enough: “The best holiday of the year,” she said, “is Halloween.”
Not a natural pause: “I did every assignment except,” he said, “for the term paper.”
Good: “I did every assignment,” he said, “except for the term paper.”
11. Brackets and ellipses
Brackets—[ ]—are used within quotes to indicate a word that was not said by the speaker. Even though they’re tempting and commonly used, best practice is never to use them. They are clunky and remove the illusion that we’re hearing the speaker, taking away the quote-ness of a quote.
Almost always, you can tell the reader what you would have put into brackets by taking the time and effort to set up the quote.
Consider how the brackets spoil this quote:
“Arnold [Schwarzenegger] is a wuss,” said Bustamante.
Instead, write something like:
Bustamante made it clear that for him, Schwarzenegger’s tough-guy image is all hype. “Arnold is a wuss,” he said.
Ellipses [ … ] indicate material from a quote has been omitted. Do not use ellipses when quoting from speech. If the material you want to omit is filler, repetitive, or brief, it’s okay to just leave it out.
For example, If in your interview Bustamente said, “Arnold is, you know, a wuss,” your quote should be either the exact words or “Arnold is a wuss,” not, “Arnold is … a wuss.”
However, if the material you want to leave out is a sentence or more, or was uttered at different times, make two separate quotes.
“LaGuardia airport is a disaster area,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said. “…We expect to replace it with the finest urban airport in the world.”
“LaGuardia airport is a disaster area,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said.
“We expect to replace it with the finest urban airport in the world,” he said later in the interview.
When quoting from written material, brackets and ellipses are okay.