When you're reporting exactly what somebody said—a direct quotation—you put the word or words in quotation marks.
Let's figure out when you need to put single words such as “yes” and “no” in quotation marks.
It all boils down to whether you’re dealing with a direct quotation or an indirect quotation.
A direct quotation is when you’re directly quoting what someone said—word-for-word, not paraphrasing. You put direct quotations in quotation marks.
So if you were hanging out with Squiggly in Ghirardelli Square, and you asked him if he wanted some chocolate covered cashews, and he looked at you with big eyes and simply said, “Yes!” you could later report to Aardvark that Squiggly said, “Yes,” and you’d put that in quotation marks since that’s exactly what he said.
An indirect quotation is when you’re reporting what someone said, but not exactly. You’re paraphrasing, and you don’t need to put indirect quotations in quotation marks.
Let’s imagine again that you were hanging out with Squiggly in Ghirardelli Square, but this time when you asked him if he wanted some chocolate covered cashews, he said, “Oh my gosh, you can’t imagine how much I want chocolate covered cashews. I was just looking at them and drooling. Thank you!”
You might report again to Aardvark that you offered Squiggly chocolate covered cashews and he said yes, but this time you wouldn’t put “yes” in quotation marks because Squiggly didn’t actually say the word “yes.” You’re just paraphrasing his dramatically positive response.
Sometimes it can be a little confusing to decide whether to use quotation marks, but remember that the trick is to figure out whether the person literally said the words “yes” or “no,” in which case you need quotation marks, or if you are just conveying the general sense of a positive or negative response, and in that case, you don’t need quotation marks.
If you are directly quoting someone, put the word in quotation marks:
- Sarah smiled and said, “Yes.”
- I looked up from my desk and said, "No, you can't have a cookie."
If you are indirectly quoting someone, don't put the word in quotation marks:
- He wondered whether Sarah would say yes.
- I looked up from my desk and told him no, he couldn't have a cookie.
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Mignon Fogarty is Grammar Girl and the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips. Check out her New York Times best-seller, “Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing.”