A Comma Before the Quote

I am BACK!!
I hope your holidays were glorious. Mine were lovely even though I was really down and out sick with a throat “thing.” I think that, after almost three weeks, I am finally getting better. Can you say “froggy”?
The question of whether to put a comma before quotes when quoting from a document came up on Facebook. This is fairly “long” for our general purposes; however, I feel that we have to make this explanation.
When a conversation has taken place and that conversation is being relayed — called “discourse” — quote are appropriate if the words being used are those that would be used when talking directly to someone. This is where I would use the expression “when the person is acting as if these were the words he would use face to face.”
[I am not sure how the court reporting field got hung up on “proving” that this is what he really said. If that were the criterion, there would never be quotes.]
These words are separated from the “lead-in words” — “he said,” “I responded,” “she replied” — from the quoted material with punctuation, usually a comma.
…He said, “What do you think you are doing?”
…She said, “I am throwing this out.”
…He said, “You are what?”
…She said, “Throwing this out.”
This is the rule you all know and probably learned in school.
But when a document is being read into the record, there is no “discourse.” This is not a conversation that has taken place that is being relayed..
So the rule that comes into play here is the rule about “words used as words.” When words are being highlighted or emphasized or defined, they are quoted.
…What do you mean by “in the vicinity?”
…When you say “confidently,” exactly how was he acting?
These words do not take a comma before the quotes unless it is appropriate for the sentence in general, that is, unless the grammar calls for it. Rarely do these types of quotes need commas in front of them.
…The document says “It was just after midnight that she was admitted.”
…It states “…on the left.”
This is where quoting from a document falls. The words from the document are being “highlighted” and need to be quoted. But there is no comma in front of them to separate them from “it says” or “it states.” It is not discourse. It is not a conversation that is being relayed. It is just words that are being highlighted.
Happy punctuating!

by Margie Wakeman Wells

14 thoughts on “A Comma Before the Quote

    • Margie Wakeman Wells says:

      Hi, Val.

      You are very welcome. I do not have this in the book and intend to add it when I revise it — my task for this winter.

      I have made my plane reservations and am looking forward to seeing you.


  1. Rachelle Cahoon says:

    Margie, thank you for this clarification.  This is one area I have been unclear on.  Is it appropriate to italicize words instead of put quotes around them in those examples using “in the vicinity” and “confidently”?

    • Margie Wakeman Wells says:

      Interesting question — I think so. I am going to have to think about it; but, off the top of my head, I think it would be considered discourse.

      Have a good day.

      • Kristen says:

        Margie, did you ever get a chance to consider whether an e-mail chain or text message string would be considered discourse? If someone is reading out the text/e-mail conversation (you say “blah,” she says “blah blah,” then you say “blah blah blah”), would there be commas before the quotes? I suppose I am a little confused since it is still being read from documents. Thanks!

        • Margie Wakeman Wells says:

          Dear Kristen,

          I do think that the email string is discourse and should therefore be transcribed as such (with the commas after “said,” et cetera.

          Hope this helps.


  2. Liza says:

    Regarding words being highlighted, I have an attorney reading line after line after line of a medical record. 
    Q.  It says “Eyes equal, round, reactive to light,” correct?
    A.  Correct.
    Q.  Normal dentition, no gingival inflammation, correct?
    A.  Correct..

    He doesn’t repeat “It says” or “It states” but he is still quoting from the records. I guess the question is is everything quoted being read from the record?  It looks so busy to me.  How do you distinguish when to quote when lead-in words are not use, i.e., it says, it states, it indicates, et cetera? 

    • Margie Wakeman Wells says:

      The words are quoted if he is reading them from the record with or without the lead-in words.

      Hope this helps.


  3. Carol says:

    A judge prewrites a decision before motions are argued.  Attorneys argue their motion.  The judge then reads the prewritten decision.  Should the decision be in quotes?

  4. Liza says:

    What about quotes that are introduced with the word “that”?  For example, “…wherein the Court there said that Cook County has a legitimate connection to this litigation due to Advocate’s residence in Cook County.”  The attorney is quoting an appellate court decision.  The actual quote begins with “Cook County….”  I”m not sure if quotes are used when quoted material is introduced with the word “that”.  I can’t quite put my finger on it, but something seems wrong about it.  I can’t find a rule either way.  Thanks.

    • Margie Wakeman Wells says:

      In correct English the word “that” cannot introduce a direct quote. If it does (because the grammar is not correct), then use the quotes, and there is still not a comma.

      Hope this helps.


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