What are quotation marks used for?

A few days ago I was struck by a sign that was written as: BEWARE OF “DOG”. This sparked a thought on the correct uses of quotation marks. Many times, they are used to draw attention to a word, as in this case; however, this option is not among the uses mentioned by the Real Academia Española (RAE). According to the rules of the RAE, quotation marks have the following uses:


  • For textual quotations: John said, “I will not go to that place.”
  • In literary works of a narrative nature, texts that directly reproduce the thoughts of the characters: “We will never find it” thought the director.
  • To indicate that a word or expression is improper, vulgar, comes from another language or is used ironically or has a special meaning: He told me he saw a “bat”; He explained that his brother was quite “special.”
  • To emphasize a term that, in a manuscript, is spoken from a linguistic point of view: The word “nature” has two syllables.
  • In works of a linguistic nature, simple quotes are used to frame the meanings: The word beekeeping is made up of the Latin terms apis ‘bee’ and cultura ‘cultivation, upbringing’.
  • To quote the title of an article, a poem, a chapter of a book, a report or, in general, any dependent part within a publication: We read the story “Light is Like Water” from Gabriel García Márquez’s book Strange Pilgrims.


If we go back to what was written on the sign, and keep these rules in mind, we may think that, in reality, there is no dog or that the dog is not dangerous. While we all understand what the sign means, as professionals, it’s important to have clear rules in order to avoid mistakes and misunderstandings. In this case, the most convenient way to emphasize the word “dog” would have been to underline it or write it in bold.


When using quotes, it is also important to consider how they are combined with other punctuation marks:


  • Punctuation marks that correspond to the period in which the text is enclosed in quotation marks are always placed after the closing quotation marks:

          His words were: “I won’t do it”; but in the end he helped us out.

          Did he really say “see you never”?

  • The text that goes inside the quotes has an independent punctuation and has its own orthography. Therefore, if the statement is interrogative or exclamatory, the question marks and exclamation points are written inside the quotation marks:

           He asked the concierge, “Where are the bathrooms?”              

           “I’m looking forward to the holidays!” He exclaimed.


For those of us who translate from Spanish to English, it is important to keep in mind that in English, punctuation always goes inside the quotation marks, while in Spanish, it is always outside (with the exception of punctuation that corresponds to the quoted text). The idea behind so many rules, that sometimes seem impossible to remember, is to produce texts that are clearer, more accurate and easier to understand.