If before the quote the word "saying" or "said" is used, does a comma always have to be used before it? When does a comma not have to be used?


I don't believe there is any special rule governing how to punctuate before a quotation (assuming this isn't dialogue in fiction, which is when use of the word "said," or substitutes for it, generally requires special treatment). I punctuate a sentence containing a short quote in the same way I would any other. Typically, if the quotation is a complete sentence (i.e., subject + predicate), I would separate it from the introductory clause using either a colon or a comma, depending on what feels right in the situation.

The girl stopped me and said: "Do you know the way to the station?"


The girl stopped me and said, "Do you know the way to the station?"

I think in this example, either one works, but I like the comma best because of the informal feel of the sentence (at least it sounds informal in isolation from its context) and the short length of the quotation. If this were an academic paper, and the quotation longer or more substantial, I would probably opt for a colon so as to call special attention to it.

  • I don't know... the comma looks really strange to me but, again, I am not English. – nico Apr 1 '11 at 14:56
  • @nico: The comma may seem strange because, if it weren't for the quotation, it would be a comma splice. – Kelly Hess Apr 1 '11 at 15:01
  • it may also be because in Italian (my native language) you would always use a colon before a quotation, so maybe that's why it looks strange to me! – nico Apr 1 '11 at 16:04
  • @nico: That would certainly explain it. I think you're fine using the colon. – Kelly Hess Apr 1 '11 at 16:45

I am not 100% sure if there is some strange rule in English for this... but rather than a comma I would use a colon.

The girl stopped me and said: "Do you know the way to the station?"

The OED says:

Its best defined use is to separate clauses which are grammatically independent and discontinuous, but between which there is an apposition or similar relation of sense. Thus it may introduce an antithetic statement, an illustration, extract, etc. But ‘its use is not very exactly fixed; it was used before punctuation was refined, to mark almost any sense less than a period’ (J.). It is also employed to divide prose into metrical periods for chanting.

The function of the comma is to make clear the grammatical structure, and hence the sense, of the passage; one of the means by which this is effected in actual speech is a short pause; hence the comma is often inaccurately said to be merely the mark of such a pause;

A quotation fits the first definition much better than the second in my opinion.

  • 3
    It's usually a comma. The colon is reserved for a few special cases. – Jimi Oke Apr 1 '11 at 19:05

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