Quotation marks: When and how to use quotations in academic writing

Quotation Marks: When and how to use quotations in academic writing

The proper use of punctuation can help to strengthen arguments made in your research paper. But knowing the English grammar rules and using these correctly can be confusing, especially for researchers with English as a second language. One of the easiest punctuation marks that you can get wrong is quotation marks, also called inverted commas, quotes, or speech marks. Why? Because the grammar rules may differ depending on the journal’s preferred style. For instance, most authors can’t decide whether the punctuation marks at the end of the sentence, commas, full stop, question marks, etc. should be inside or outside the quotation mark. Also, what if there is a quotation mark inside a quotation mark? This article will answer your concerns about using quotation marks in your academic writing.

American English vs. British English

English is regarded as a global language, but its use varies between American and British English, the two styles used in academic writing.1 This also holds true when you include information from external sources by using quotations in academic writing.

  • Single and Double quotes

Both American and British English use single and double quotation marks, but their usage varies across places. This may also differ based on the journal you are submitting to. So to avoid mistakes when using quotation marks, first decide on the language style to follow. For example, Australia and the UK use single quotation marks (‘ ’), while North America uses the double quotation mark (“ ”). An exception to this is when using quotes in news headlines and when quoting within a quote, like the example below:

American English: “Ann said to John, ‘I will finish the project on time!’”

British English: ‘Ann said to John, “I will finish the project on time!”’

  • Punctuation marks placement

Another difference between American and British English is where punctuation marks go when used with quotation marks. In American English, the punctuation marks are always placed inside the quotation mark. An exception is when using colons and semicolons, which are placed outside the quotes. British English places commas and periods outside the quotation marks unless it is part of the quote. In both British and American English, question marks and exclamation points that are part of the quote go inside the quotation marks.

American English: “The spaceship appeared over the ancient city.”

British English: ‘The spaceship appeared over the ancient city’.

SituationUS styleUK style
Terminal mark part of quoted matter.”.’
Terminal mark not part of quoted matter.”’.
Terminal mark not part of quoted matter is a colon or semicolon”:’:

Fig 1: Relative positions of punctuation and closing quotation marks in US and UK English.

But, in both styles, a question mark always appears inside the quotes when the person quoted is asking the question and outside if you are asking the question. For example,

  • John asks, “How far will this road go?”
  • How many users attending the conference reported their satisfaction as “high”?

When to use quotations in academic writing

  1. Give historical context to a theory or construct: Quote an original article to convey a unique perspective. This is especially true if the language of the original passage is elegant, powerful, or memorable.2 E.g., Scholars have used mathematics as a communication method (Cockcroft, 1982). The SACE Board (2010) states that “mathematics is a universal language that is communicated through all cultures.”
  • Quote an item from a questionnaire or measure: Use quotation marks to give examples of individual items describing a particular instrument or questions in a survey. E.g., Sample questions to rate their motivation when using a learning method include “What I feel and think about myself as a learner.” (Harlen and Crick, 2003).
  • Start of the paper: These quotes help set up the central issue of a paper with a historical or political quote. An article on self-sufficiency, can begin as follows: “The best definition of man is: a being that goes on two legs and is ungrateful” (Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Notes from Underground, 1864).

Quotations including external information should be kept relatively short and used sparingly. Too many of them, and the reviewers will accuse you of not producing original writing. Also, readers are more interested to read your thoughts on the paper and less on what others say on the topic.

In short, it’s important to use quotations in academic writing, and researchers should focus on understanding the rules so they can apply them properly. We hope the simple tips provided in this article help you use quotation marks more confidently.


  1. Style Manual: For Authors, Editors and Printers. 2002. 6th ed. Revised by Snooks & Co. Milton, QLD: John Wiley & Sons.
  2. Eldh, A. C., Årestedt, L., & Berterö, C. Quotations in qualitative studies: Reflections on constituents, custom, and purpose. International Journal of Qualitative Methods, 19, 1609406920969268 (2020). https://www.researchgate.net/publication/345320846_Quotations_in_Qualitative_Studies_Reflections_on_Constituents_Custom_and_Purpose.

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