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Tutor Zach McLaughlin 's Column

Using quotation marks in English

Mar 16, 2021

In my column for this week’s topic, Memorable music for you, I used quotation marks (“...”) several times in an unusual way. Quotation marks can have different meanings, so for anyone studying English, here are some ways that you can use this punctuation in your writing!

Quoting someone

Of course, the main function of quotation marks is to quote someone - to repeat exactly the words that the person used. This is used for... 

  • Famous quotes - “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” - Wayne Gretzky
  • Dialogue in stories - “Why did you do that?” she asked. “I have no idea,” he replied.
  • When you want to report someone’s exact words to someone else - She said, “Tell Adam to be home by six.” She was very specific!

Identifying a title

Another function of quotation marks is to identify the title of a work. This can also be done by using italics. Quotation marks are recommended for smaller works (poems, stories, songs, etc.) and italics for larger works (books, magazines, TV shows, etc.).

  • “The Bet” is the first chapter in A Promised Land.

Implying a special meaning

Air quotes (a gesture made with the fingers) are usually used in spoken English but can be used in written English as well (sometimes called scare quotes). In general, they mean that the word or phrase in quotes has an ironic, hidden, opposite, or otherwise special meaning. Also, if a speaker/writer doesn’t like or agree with a word/phrase, they can be used to create distance. Readers need to guess the writer’s meaning from context. In these sentences from my weekly column, I used them to mean kind of (but not really/exactly).

  • My friends’ older siblings were still listening to 80s music, so it seemed “cooler.”
  • As we moved off to college, we “adopted” that music as our own.
  • Now that we’re in our 30s, we tend to look back on the 80s as a “classic” time.

Air quotes (and scare quotes) are difficult to use correctly but are very interesting, and I recommend studying them and learning to recognize them.

I hope this will help you to use quotation marks in English!


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