How to avoid punctuation and case missteps in quoted matter

Should your lead-in end in a comma, or a colon, or nothing at all? When should you—or shouldn’t you—capitalize the first word of the quote? Read on; all will be revealed.

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Content aside, quotations can present technical problems for writers.

The following sentences demonstrate issues writers confront when they compose sentences that incorporate quotations that are not framed with attribution (phrasing that identifies the source of the quotation, such as “he said” or “she writes”).

Each example is followed by a discussion of the problem in the sentence and a solution.

1. The consultant’s answer to the question of how to get started is always: “Begin with a plan.”

A quotation should be introduced with a statement that ends with a colon only if the statement is a complete sentence, as in “The consultant’s answer to the question of how to get started is always the same: ‘Begin with a plan.’” Otherwise, the punctuation is only obstructing the syntactical flow of the overarching sentence, so omit it here: “The consultant’s answer to the question of how to get started is always ‘Begin with a plan.’” (The presence of a “to-be” verb—is, in this case—obviates the need for punctuation.) Another exception is if what precedes the quotation is an attribution, as in “When asked for advice, Jones said: ‘Begin with a plan.’” However, in such cases, a simple comma after said suffices.

2. The old adage of “what gets measured, gets done” applies here.

The adage should be treated like a complete statement—with the first word capitalized (and no intervening punctuation): “The old adage ‘What gets measured gets done’ applies here.” Also, notice that because “What gets measured gets done” is an actual statement, not merely a paraphrase or distillation of a statement, the extraneous word of has been deleted. (However, even when the adage is described and not directly quoted, about, not of, is appropriate, as in “The old adage about something getting done if it is measured applies here.” Note, too, that adage has a connotation of familiarity, so some would consider old redundant.)

3. Smith warns that, “The actual federal commitment will be only a small fraction of that, and it may be poorly targeted.”

Although as a standalone statement, the quotation is a complete sentence, it has been integrated into the syntax of the overarching statement beginning “The actual federal commitment . . .” and thus loses its independent status: “Smith warns that ‘the actual federal commitment will be only a small fraction of that, and it may be poorly targeted.’” The first few words might seem to constitute an attribution, in which case the first word in the quoted sentence would remain capitalized, but that after “Smith warns” serves as a bridge that syntactically links the quotation with that phrase. (Note that the attribution can also be inserted before the second clause—“and it may be poorly targeted”—or at the end of the sentence, and if an attribution is employed, the quotation must be capitalized no matter where the attribution occurs.)

4. The commission asserts that, “as a general rule, the full board should have primary responsibility for risk oversight.”

In this sentence, as in the previous example, the quotation is syntactically integral, and as is correctly treated lowercase. But is the comma essential here, considering that “as a general rule” is parenthetical to “The commission asserts that ‘the full board should have primary responsibility for risk oversight”? It can be read that way, but the phrase “The commission asserts that ‘as a general rule’” can also be read as subordinate to the main clause beginning “the full board,” so the first comma, though not outright erroneous, is not necessary: “The commission asserts that ‘as a general rule, the full board should have primary responsibility for risk oversight.’”

5. As Jones so eloquently observed, “The ability to recognize that the winds have shifted and to take appropriate action before you wreck your boat is crucial to the future of an enterprise.”

This sentence is correct as is, but it can easily be simplified somewhat by converting the attribution to the subject of the sentence: “Jones so eloquently observed that ‘the ability to recognize that the winds have shifted and to take appropriate action before you wreck your boat is crucial to the future of an enterprise.’

Mark Nichol is a writer for Daily Writing Tips.

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