I've seen and used quotations that I'm not sure is correct. If it is correct, I'd like to know what it is called. If it is incorrect, I'd like to know how to punctuate it correctly. Here is an example of this usage in a hypothetical text conversation.

Mary: I cleaned him out.

Joe: Wait, do you mean, "I won all of his money, so now he has none"?

To add some clarity, I believe the second example below also illustrates the same usage of quotes.

Bob: I think I heard him say, "I like you".

Bob hearing "I like you" is purely hypothetical. It's possible that Bob misheard "I despise you" for "I like you".

Is it correct to use the hypothetical content within quotes? If not, how should it be punctuated?


Every definition of quotation or quote, and every rule I've read regarding their usage mentions an origin or source of text or speech. To me, this implies that there must be an original source in order for something to be considered a quote. However, in the cases above there is no original source as the whole quotation¹ is made up.

Is there an authoritative definition of quotation that includes a hypothetical or entirely paraphrased quote¹? Or if no such definition can be found, is there an example of this type of quote¹ in an authoritative work?

¹The usage of quote or quotation here may be incorrect in accordance with the outcome of this question.

  • 1
    Yes, it is correct to use the hypothetical content within quotes, but how does one prove such an answer?
    – Val Kornea
    Commented Jul 23, 2015 at 21:51
  • 1
    @vladkornea A style guide may mention it? perhaps as the definition of what a quote consists of?
    – Eph
    Commented Jul 23, 2015 at 23:16

5 Answers 5


I don't think I can do better than to quote the Wikipedia page, "Quotation marks in English", which says:

Single or double quotation marks denote either speech or a quotation.

A quotation needs a source. Speech, though, just needs a defined speaker.

There IS an exception for paraphrases described:

Quotation marks are not used for paraphrased speech. This is because a paraphrase is not a direct quote, and in the course of any composition, it is important to document when one is using a quotation versus when one is using a paraphrased idea, which could be open to interpretation.

If Hal says: "All systems are functional", then, in paraphrased speech:

Incorrect: Hal said "everything was going extremely well".

Correct: Hal said that everything was going extremely well.

Seems to me that the rationale given there is incorrect, however. This is nothing to do with accuracy of attribution, and all about how a paraphrase is in a different voice; the pronouns mean different things inside the quotes as out.

So in your example:

Bob: I think I heard him say, "I like you".

...the quotes are appropriate even if it's a misquote, because it's still wrapping speech and assigning the quoted pronoun "I" to the speaker, "him", and not to Bob. If Bob heard right, 'he' likes 'you'. Whereas,

Bob: I think I heard him say, I like you.

... has three unquoted "I"s, all meaning Bob. If Bob heard right, 'he' thinks Bob likes 'you'.

To be a paraphrase in the sense of that exclusion, Bob would need to fiddle the pronouns:

Bob: I think I heard him say, he likes you.

So a more general rule might be: quote marks are required for any phrase where "I" would mean something different to the surrounding text. In which case, both of these are OK:

Bob: I said, "I like you".

Bob: I said, I like you.

  • You could do a lot better by quoting reputable sources, including, perchance the ones this wikipedia entry cites. Commented Oct 18, 2017 at 22:40

I think you may have conflated two uses of quotation marks. I use the first is to indicate that the quoted words are not mine, and the second is to report direct discourse. The overlap is a proper set of each. That is, there are other people's words that I wish to use but that don't appear in conversation, and there is also my own directly reported speech.

The Chicago Manual of Style dictates that in-line quotations of poetry are quoted with a "/" to separate them. The example from section 10.10 is from Andrew Marvell's poem "On Paradise Lost" and which example I adapt here:

As the poetic expression about Milton has it, "Thou has not missed one thought that could be fit,/And all that was improper dost omit." But I disagree and would change this to "Thy poem was the longest piece of shit/It seemed there was nothing thou would omit."

Two things -- 1) in the first stanza, I'm not quoting Marvel's speech; I'm reproducing his work, and 2) the second stanza makes it clear that I, at least, don't think it's true.

One more example. Do you remember when Hamlet said, "To be or not to be. Whatever."? Now we've got a misquote from a fictional character. Still in the form of a report of direct discourse. Still quoted

  • Is your adaptation from The Chicago Manual of Style (the block quote) a direct quote?
    – Eph
    Commented Jul 23, 2015 at 23:36
  • The example actually reads, "Andrew Marvel's praise of John Milton, "Thou has not missed one thought that could be fit,/And all that was improper dost omit" ("On Paradise Lost), might well serve as our motto.
    – deadrat
    Commented Jul 23, 2015 at 23:38
  • Okay so you added the usage of hypothetical quotes to the example. Thanks for the clarification.
    – Eph
    Commented Jul 23, 2015 at 23:50
  • Sort of. I quoted (i.e., used quotation marks for) Marvel to give him credit for his words, even though he wasn't actually speaking. I quoted myself to show direct discourse -- I don' t need to worry about giving credit to others for my own words -- and to dispute Marvel's sentiments in case you think writing a poem is close enough to speaking. If that's so, I don't his words are true, but I quote them anyway. Should I make this clearer in my answer?
    – deadrat
    Commented Jul 23, 2015 at 23:56
  • 1
    Yeah, I'm not following 100%.
    – Eph
    Commented Jul 24, 2015 at 0:27

The following would be the way to use quote marks (U.S. conventions) in the context you described.

Mary: "I cleaned him out." Joe: "Wait, do you mean, 'I won all of his money, so now he has none?'"

Even if Joe is only imagining what Mary said, he's imagining it as a direct quote. If Joe were imagining it as an indirect quote then it wouldn't have the quote marks:

Joe: "Wait do you mean that you won all of his money so now he has none?"

Some might differ on where that end question mark should go: after the single quotation mark? Typographically, this looks best to me, but logically I suppose it should go after the single quote mark.

  • 1
    So just clarifying, your answer boils down to saying that an imagined direct quote should be treated identically to a direct quote, correct? I believe they should be treated identically as well, but do you know of any sources that might validate that belief?
    – Eph
    Commented Jul 24, 2015 at 0:37
  • I doubt such a source exists. But this is the way I've seen it handled in fiction.
    – Zan700
    Commented Jul 24, 2015 at 1:19
  • I'll try to dig up a couple of examples. But suppose I have the sentence Julie did not say, "Simon's a fool." Isn't this an imagined quote?
    – Zan700
    Commented Jul 24, 2015 at 1:23
  • Yes, I would say that's an imagined quote. Where is that from?
    – Eph
    Commented Jul 24, 2015 at 1:45
  • 1
    From Catcher in the Rye: I'll bet a thousand bucks the reason they did that was because a lot of guys' parents came up to school on Sunday, and old Thurmer probably figured everybody's mother would ask their darling boy what he had for dinner last night, and he'd say, "Steak."
    – Zan700
    Commented Jul 25, 2015 at 0:16

As I've come to understand quotations are used to indicate the source of the words differs from the surrounding context. This may be to site a source of information, or is often used to indicate direct discourse.

Direct discourse refers to the quoted words of a character given by the narrator.

In this case, the source of the words is the speech of a character in the narrators world. It doesn't make a difference if the world that the narrator is describing is fictional or not fictional, the punctuation and grammar are the same.

Now the examples given in the question may be explained as follows:

Mary: I cleaned him out.
Joe: Wait, do you mean, "I won all of his money, so now he has none"?

Here Marry narrates her actions. Then Joe asks whether a different phrasing would have narrated her actions just as well. In this instance the phrasing is being uttered by a hypothetical Mary, in the hypothetical world that Joe is narrating where Mary used a different phrasing. Thus Joe is really using Direct Discourse to indicate the speech of a hypothetical Mary.

Similarly, in the second example Bob is explaining that in the hypothetical world that corresponds to Bob's perception of the world, the unnamed male actually said the words, "I like you." Thus, since the words are directly quoting a source (regardless of whether it is a hypothetical source or not) they should be quoted.


Wikipedia states that quotation marks are "punctuation marks used in pairs in various writing systems to set off direct speech, a quotation, or a phrase" (emphasis mine). That said, what you are asking about is a phrase--whether imagined or real--which means it should be enclosed in quotation marks.

Take note of this example of secondary quotation marks which, while not itself an answer to your question, contains an example of what you have asked about (emphasis mine):

In American English, double quotes are used normally (the "primary" style). If quote marks are used inside another pair of quote marks, then single quotes are used as the "secondary" style. For example: "Didn't she say 'I like red best' when asked her favorite wine?" he wondered to himself.

The statement I like red best is included in quotation marks to designate the words of another person--which may or may not have actually been spoken by that person. Although that example is not cited and Wikipedia is by no means an authority, I believe it is as close to an answer as you will find. The fact is that something needn't necessarily be said aloud (or even accurately quoted) for it to necessitate quotation marks.

  • And if you read this Wikipedia entry, you will see that people put misheard words, phrases, and sentences in quotation marks all the time: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mondegreen Commented Jul 27, 2015 at 20:53
  • What authority does Wikipedia have? How are we to judge if this entry is based on current reputable thinking? Commented Oct 18, 2017 at 22:41

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