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How to Use Speech Marks with a Question

Mary Smith
By Mary Smith. Updated: July 9, 2020
How to Use Speech Marks with a Question

The reason for having speech marks is in the name, to mark speech. It helps guide the reader's eye to the part of a text which is meant to be spoken language rather than narrative. In turn, this can help you to better understand what the text is trying to convey. Unfortunately, as can be seen in writers from Louise Erdrich to William Faulkner, authors often love to play around with these pieces of punctuation. Some, like Cormac McCarthy, seem to think they are altogether unhelpful[1]. Some omit them altogether, others use different types of quotation marks. This is why oneHOWTO looks at how to use speech marks with a question, but we do so with as much information as we can so you know what is expected. Once you learn it, feel free to write however you like.

You may also be interested in: What is a Rhetorical Question? With Examples
  1. Standard use of speech marks
  2. Speech marks in British English
  3. Speech marks in American English

Standard use of speech marks

Speech marks are otherwise known as quotation marks. This is because when written down in pieces of writing, articles or novels for example, they are ‘quoting' the speech of someone. This is also known as ‘direct speech'. Direct speech is the opposite of reported speech which is speech which is summarized or paraphrased. This doesn't need any punctuation:

  • The coal miners said something about not wanting to go the Gasket anymore.

To show the direct speech, the piece of punctuation used is known as inverted commas. These are single or pairs of commas which are inverted so that they go on the top ‘upper case' level of a sentence, rather than the bottom ‘lower case' level where punctuation is normal placed in English.

However, we can't quite begin to show you how to use speech marks in a question until you first answer this question yourself: am I writing in British or American English? We have divided the guidelines to quotation marks into these two categories so you can decide which is more helpful to you.

Speech marks in British English

We should perhaps call this section ‘inverted commas in British English' as this is what they are more commonly referred to. In British English, you can use either single inverted commas or pairs of inverted commas. However, single inverted commas are more common. For use in a standard piece of direct speech, it looks something like this:

  • Jeremy said, I can't see her right now, I have a headache.'

Notice how the speech comes after the name (‘Jason') and action (‘said') of the speaker? When this happens, we place a comma before the quoted speech. When the information about the speaker comes after, we place the comma inside the quotation marks:

  • ‘I can't see her now, I have a headache', said Jeremy.

There needs to be some sort of punctuation near the speech marks, but one of the differences between speech marks in British and American English is the placement of the punctuation. In British English, the end of the sentence punctuation (known as the terminal punctuation) is always inside the inverted commas:

  • ‘He'll never trust him again.'

This is the same if using your speech marks for a question.

  • ‘You think you can just walk all over me?'

When the speaker information is provided, this changes things. If the speaker information comes before the direct speech (as above), the comma comes after the speech marks:

  • ‘He'll never trust him again', said Fariq.

However, when the direct speech is a question or exclamation, this different punctuation changes the placement of the inverted commas:

  • ‘You think you can just walk all over me?' asked Anna.

This gets more complicated when using a quotation within a quotation. Here you need to use a little logic. For example:

  • Dan exclaimed, ‘When Jim came over to me he said “don't waste my time"!'
  • Dan said, ‘When Jim came over to me he shouted “don't waste my time!".'

The first thing to notice is that as the use of single inverted commas is more prevalent in British English, the quotation inside the quotation uses double inverted commas.

The second, is that in the first sentence the speaker is making an exclamation. This means the exclamation belongs to his speech, not the speech he is quoting. In the second sentence, the exclamation belongs to the person he is quoting so the exclamation mark stays in the double inverted commas. The terminal punctuation is still needed to finish the original speaker's sentence, so a full stop (period) is added.

The same goes when wanting to use speech marks in a question which is being quoted by someone else or when used in indirect speech.

  • Fridrich wanted to answer ‘how do you light a candle under water?', but couldn't think of a method.

If there is a quotation being used to ask a question in direct speech, then we say:

  • Siobhan asked, ‘Is the question “what is my motivation" even relevant?'

We don't say:

  • Siobhan asked, ‘Is the question “what is my motivation?" even relevant?'

This is because it gives us too many question marks and confuses the sentence.

Speech marks in American English

Speech marks in American English are somewhat more straight forward. However, they more commonly use double inverted commas. For example:

  • Jeremy said, “I can't see her right now, I have a headache."

As with British English, terminal punctuation in American English comes before the inverted comma at the end of the sentence. However, unlike British English, when the speaker information comes after the direct speech, you always put the punctuation before the inverted commas. This is even if only using a comma:

  • “I can't see her now, I have a headache," said Jeremy.

Strangely, when using direct speech in recorded speech, then the opposite is true. In British English only the phrase is kept inside the commas. In American English, the punctuation is also kept inside. For example:

  • British English: The concept of ‘looking for a chicken', although not for everyone, was popular.
  • American English: The concept of “looking for a chicken," although not for everyone, was popular.

The same goes at the end of the sentence:

  • No one wanted to ‘stomp on the pudding'.
  • No one wanted to “stomp the pudding."

This is one of the most common confused uses of speech marks in a question, but there is good news. These uses of speech marks are not well known by anyone outside of linguists. There have been so many changes that, unless you are writing something which has strict guidelines for style, you can use your own preferred method. The only real requisite is that you be consistent throughout the entire text. Changing up placement of speech marks might be noticed and might even be confusing.

If you want to read similar articles to How to Use Speech Marks with a Question, we recommend you visit our Learning category.

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1 comment
i have work to do ,said the surgeon.
we need to hurry said the sailor. answer all of them
OneHowTo Editor
Hi Vanessa,

Learning how to use speech marks can be very tricky, which is why we wrote this article to explain it. If we tell you how it is done, you won't learn how to do it, so we politely decline. Try using the tips and good luck!
How to Use Speech Marks with a Question