When to Use Commas Before Quotations
As a general rule, you should use a comma to introduce quoted material or dialogue, but there are three times you shouldn't.
We recently got a question about commas from one of our listeners, Benjamin Wolfe. Benjamin asked this: “Have you done a post on when to include a comma before a quotation? The rules seem dicey.”
Benjamin, we agree! This is one of those questions that doesn’t have a single answer. In fact, there are four, count ‘em, four different ways you can introduce a quotation. Each has its own punctuation rule.
Let’s take a look.
When to Use a Comma
As a general rule, you should use a comma to introduce quoted material or dialogue. That’s because in most types of dialogue, the quoted material stands apart from the surrounding text. In grammatical terms, it’s “syntactically independent.”
Here are two examples from the first book in the “Game of Thrones” series.
Maester Luwin said, “Bran, the children of the forest have been gone for thousands of years.”
Tyrion Lannister undid his scarf, mopped at his brow, and said in a flat voice, “How interesting.”
You can also use commas when a quotation is interrupted by a phrase like “he said” or “she said.” In fact, you use two commas. For example
“What the king dreams,” [Ned] said, “the Hand builds.”
“Bran,” [Jon] said, “I’m sorry I didn’t come before.”
When to Skip the Comma
In certain cases, you can skip the comma when introducing a quotation.
First, skip the comma if the quotation is introduced by a conjunction like “that,” “whether,” or “if.” Following that guidance, I might write sentences like this:
Eddard Stark is constantly reminding people that “winter is coming.”
Lord Varys wonders whether “we’ve grown so used to horror we assume there’s no other way.”
Tyrion Lannister said that “a mind needs books like a sword needs a whetstone.”
Second, ask yourself whether the quotation blends into the rest of the sentence—or, speaking grammatically, if it’s a syntactical part of the surrounding sentence. If the quotation blends in, the comma comes out.
Here are two examples:
It was the third time he had called her “boy.” “I’m a girl,” Arya objected.
Fat Tom used to call her “Arya Underfoot” because he said that was where she always was.
That’s all we have to say about commas.
When to Use a Colon
But, you can also use a colon to introduce a quotation. You’d do that when the quotation is being introduced by a grammatically complete sentence—also known as an independent clause. Here are a couple of examples:
Daenerys often speaks one frightening word: “Dracarys.”
Tyrion had sage advice for the singer: “Close your eyes and pretend you’re dead.”
When to Use a Period
Finally, you can use a period to introduce a quotation. You do this when introducing a block quotation—that is, a long quotation that’s indented from the rest of the text. Here’s an example:
Sandor Clegane chastised Sansa thusly.
Some septa trained you well. You’re like one of those birds from the Summer Isles, aren’t you? A pretty little talking bird, repeating all the pretty little words they taught you to recite.
One thing to note is that a block quotation, unlike a regular quotation, is not surrounded by quotation marks. The text being indented already marks it as a direct quotation.
When to Freak Out and Run Screaming Down the Street
Just to confirm Benjamin’s feeling that these rules are a bit “dicey,” let’s mention that sometimes they can overlap and overrule one another. For example, a block quote might “blend in” to its introduction; in that case, the introduction wouldn’t need a colon. Rather, it would take no punctuation. For example
Bran’s Old Nan described the white walkers as
cold things, dead things, that hated iron and fire and the touch of the sun, and every creature with hot blood in its veins. They swept over holdfasts and cities and kingdoms, felled heroes and armies by the score, riding their pale dead horses and leading hosts of the slain. All the swords of men could not stay their advance, and even maidens and suckling babes found no pity in them.
In short, when deciding what punctuation to use when introducing a quotation, follow the rules we just described—and then use your best judgement.
So, that’s your tip for today. Quotations are usually introduced with a comma, but in some cases, they may be introduced by a colon, a period, or nothing at all.
Garner, Bryan A. The Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation. Sections 457, 460, 466. University of Chicago Press, 2016.
Martin, George R. R. A Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire, Book 1). Random House Publishing Group.
The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th ed. Sections 6.40, 6.42, 13.14–13.17. University of Chicago Press, 2017.
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