Literary Life Hacks

Use double quotation marks — singles are only for “quotes within quotes”:

“I can sing ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star’ all by myself,” the little girl said.

What quote marks are for:

  • Quotations (duh)
  • Titles of movies, plays, songs, TV shows, books (but not magazines, newspapers or reference works)
  • Nicknames (e.g., Thomas “Tip” O’Neill)
  • Irony/sarcasm/playfulness (My friend’s “party” was nothing but a sales pitch for those “miracle creams” she sells. My son made a “spaceship” out of a cardboard box.)


What quote marks are not for:

  • Emphasis. If you want a word or phrase to stand out, put it in bold, all caps, a larger font, a contrasting color or all of the above – NOT in quotes. (See what we did there?) There is a special place in Copy Crank Hell for those who misuse both quote marks and apostrophes as attention getters (“New Car’s” for sale! Don’t miss out on our “Big Deal’s”!).

Do punctuation marks go inside or outside quotation marks? It depends.

Commas and periods go inside the quotes, whether they are part of the quoted material or not:

Franklin Roosevelt said, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”

“I’m looking forward to the conference,” she said.

The best picture Oscar went to “The Shape of Water.”

(Side note: In the second example, note that the quotation ends in a comma, not a period. That’s because the quoted matter is not at the end of the sentence.)

Question marks and exclamation points go inside the quotes if they are part of the quoted material – outside if they aren’t.

“Look out!” cried Chicken Little. “Can’t you see the sky is falling?”

Have you read “How to Win Friends and Influence People”?

Colons and semicolons go outside.

The following actors appear in “Mary Poppins Returns”: Emily Blunt, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Ben Whishaw and Emily Mortimer.

My favorite TV show is “Seinfeld”; unfortunately, it ended 20 years ago.

In a compound sentence (one with two or more verbs, each with its own subject), the sentences-within-the-sentence should be separated by commas.

The meeting runs from 9 am to 5 pm, and lunch is included.

I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and people like me!

Commas are not necessary if it isn’t a true compound sentence:

The meeting runs from 9 am to 5 pm and includes lunch.

There is no rule against using commas in a non-compound sentence, however. Especially if the sentence is long, it might call for a comma or two as a “breather” for the reader.

The serial comma, aka Oxford comma, comes before the conjunction in a series. In “red, white, and blue,” it’s the comma after “white.” Whether to use it is one of the most hotly debated issues among editors and writers.

Associated Press style (used by most U.S. newspapers) advises against using it unless it’s needed for clarity – generally because one of the items in the series has a conjunction of its own:

His favorite bands are the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Journey.

His favorite bands are the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Sonny and Cher, and Journey.

We’re pro-AP style – therefore, anti-Oxford comma unless it’s absolutely necessary – but you may run into someone who insists on them. Give them what they want; it’s the proper, right, and correct thing to do. (See what we did there?)

English is easy when it comes to plurals. Only the noun changes when we form the plural – adjectives and other modifiers stay the same: Red rose, red roses. Stone house, stone houses.

That rule doesn’t change when the modifier comes after the noun – as in court-martial, notary public, attorney general or mother-in-law. Pluralize only the noun: courts-martial, notaries public, attorneys general, mothers-in-law.

When in doubt, ask yourself which word in the phrase does not make sense as a noun, and pluralize the other one. (Yes, “general” can be a noun, but an attorney general is not an officer in the Army. “In-law” can be a noun, but it’s usually plural when used alone – “I love my in-laws.”)