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How should I punctuate around quotes?

When attributing a quote to someone, you put a comma before the quote:

John said, "———"

But is the comma still used in the following sentence?

John's last words were, "———."

Or should there be something else instead? A colon maybe?

  • I disagree. His question relates to adding commas after quotes that contain punctuation and his example uses the word 'ask' before the comma. I was wondering about comma usage after words that aren't synonymous with 'say'.
    – Aushin
    Aug 17, 2012 at 12:14
  • Just a quick note. Grammar is about whether you should say "John's last words were" or "is words John last". Choosing between a comma and a colon is punctuation.
    – RegDwigнt
    Aug 17, 2012 at 12:14
  • Question #1560 that Matt linked to is the prototype of or target for numerous duplicate-question quote questions. Some questions that are more in line with yours include question #65708, and question #50620, and question #62064. Aug 17, 2012 at 16:35
  • -1 Please show your research.
    – MetaEd
    Sep 2, 2012 at 6:45

2 Answers 2


Many publishers still seem to use commas before quotations, as in your first example, but Larry Trask argued persuasively against doing so:

A sentence containing a quotation is punctuated exactly like any other sentence apart from the addition of the quotation marks. You should not insert additional punctuation marks into the sentence merely to warn the reader that a quotation is coming up: that's what the quotation marks are for. Hence the first two of the following are bad style, and the third one is wrong:

*President Nixon declared, "I am not a crook."

*President Nixon declared: "I am not a crook."

*President Nixon declared:- "I am not a crook."

The comma and the colon in the first two are completely pointless, while the startling arsenal of punctuation in the third is grotesque. (Remember, a colon can never be followed by a hyphen or a dash.) Here is the sentence with proper punctuation: President Nixon declared "I am not a crook." Adding more dots and squiggles to this perfectly clear sentence would do absolutely nothing to improve it. No punctuation mark should be used if it is not necessary.

‘The Cambridge Guide to English Usage’ largely endorses this approach, describing the comma before a quotation as an ‘older convention’.

There is even less of a need for a comma in your second example.

  • I don't have enough rep to vote you up, but thanks very much! Consider me converted to comma-less quoting!
    – Aushin
    Aug 17, 2012 at 13:32
  • 2
    Hmm, you can certainly make a logical case that a comma before a quote adds no information to the sentence. But the convention is to include a comma, and language is all about convention and common practice. I think most English teachers would mark you wrong for omitting it.
    – Jay
    Aug 17, 2012 at 14:14
  • Thank you and +1 - I am so glad to have heard this point of view.
    – JAM
    Aug 17, 2012 at 14:53

No, I don't think you should use the comma in that case, because you're treating "blahblahblah" as an object. We can look at this as:

John's last words were "I hid the key in the . . . ." He then took a deep breath, and died.

  • In the first sentence, the quote is a predicate nominative, referring back to "last words". Why would that justify a comma more than the second sentence? I agree with Barrie England that neither should need it, although it seems widely used.
    – bib
    Aug 17, 2012 at 13:04

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