You Can Quote Me

First off, the verb is quote and the noun really should be quotation – but I would be fighting a pointless rearguard action in trying to stop people from talking about a quote.

Single and double quotation marks
In the UK, single quotation marks (usually called ‘inverted commas’) are the default, with anything quoted within a quotation going in double quotation marks, like so: She said, ‘The bus driver told me, “You can’t bring such a large animal onto the bus, madam”, but in the end he let me.’

In the US, the position is reversed: double quotation marks to start, single for internal quotations.

Take your pick, but be consistent.

Here again, the Atlantic is the great divide. In the US, all punctuation goes inside the quotation marks, whether it forms part of the quotation or not. In the UK, punctuation goes inside only if it is an actual part of the words quoted (see the example in the previous section).

Quotation marks for special terms
Quotation marks can also be used to ‘to signal that a term is being used in a non[-]standard, ironic, or in another special sense’ (Chicago Manual of Style (2010)).

They can, for instance, be a substitute for so-called: For ‘lunch’, we were given some stale crusts and a glass of flat ginger ale.

Quotation marks are also often used where the term is (or is seen to be) newfangled, a bit slangy. By way of example, I hear that the young people are ‘tweeting’, whatever that means.

Do all of this very, very sparingly – and avoid the trap of thinking that metaphors somehow require quotation marks. There is no need to write The judge ‘pierced the corporate veil’.  Even persons of fairly limited intellect will understand that we aren’t talking about an actual veil here. It might be better, in any event, to educate a non-lawyer about disregarding the separate legal personality of a corporation, but without using insider terminology.

For examples of the overuse of quotation marks, see this highly entertaining blog.

US law reviews seem to think that quotation marks for special terms should be single, to differentiate them from actual quotations (which go in double quotation marks), but I can find no real basis for this. This looks like a case of editors creating rules for the sake of it.

Block quotations
If your quotation is long (more than, say, 40 words?), offset it as a centred block of text with wider margins than the main text. Because you have done this, there is no need for quotation marks around the quoted excerpt: you’ve already indicated that it’s a quotation.

Don’t assume anyone will actually read your long excerpt, however. The tendency is, in fact, to skip over big chunks like this (and, perhaps, for the reader to think you were just too lazy to paraphrase or summarise). You therefore need to explain what is to follow.

And don’t end your paragraph or section or piece with a block quotation – it’s usually more effective wrap up in your own words.

Square brackets
1L students quickly learn to do this, when quoting part of a sentence: ‘[A]ctions speak louder than words’ (‘actions’ not having a  capital A in the source, but needing one in the writer’s sentence). Only lawyers do this, and 99 times out of a hundred it’s unnecessary. Especially in a client piece.

Square brackets are useful to supply missing things (punctuation, words), make editorial comments (‘[that is, disregard the separate legal personality of a corporation]’) or indicate omissions (‘[…]’) – but you could omit the brackets and just use the ellipsis). Try not to use square brackets too much; they are hard on the eye and may disrupt the flow.

Next: shall, will, should, would, may, might, must

Neil Guthrie (@guthrieneil)

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