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Quotes Within Quotes

April 14, 2017 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified April 14, 2017

The question of what to do with quotation marks inside other quotation marks has come up a couple of times in the last two months, so I wanted to put together a very quick review of the topic.


We use quotation marks for a variety of purposes. For fiction writers the most common use of quotation marks is for spoken dialogue.

We put all spoken words inside quotation marks.

In American English (AmE):

“Annie, you told me you wouldn’t be here,” Tom said.

“I told you,” she said, “that I’d try to come.”

“But I thought”—he rubbed at his mouth—“I thought that your mother was still sick.”

In British English (BrE):

‘Annie, you told me you wouldn’t be here,’ Tom said.

‘I told you,’ she said, ‘that I’d try to come.’

‘But I thought’—he rubbed at his mouth—‘I thought that your mother was still sick.’

(While BrE allows for the option of using double quotation marks for dialogue, AmE never uses single quotation marks for dialogue.)

In addition to dialogue, we use quotation marks for titles of many kinds, including songs, TV episodes, and newspaper and magazine articles. For the full list of titles we put in quotation marks, see Marking Text: Choosing Between Italics and Quotation Marks.

We also use quotation marks for words used in a nonstandard manner or for sarcasm, mockery, or irony.

A “thinker”? That loser is no thinker. (AmE)

A ‘thinker’? That loser is no thinker (BrE)

Quotation marks are used for made-up words the first time the word is used in a document, story, or report.

Chet was “bombly-boozled” by the scammer’s patter.

And while we often use italics for words used as words—He stressed the word mystery when he gave his alibi—we could use quotation marks for the same purpose.

While these rules are pretty straightforward, it seems that confusion crops up when quoted material is nested inside other quoted material—what we call quotes within quotes.

While we do use quotation marks for the situations outlined above—typically doubles for AmE and singles for BrE—for quotes within quotes, we must consider an additional rule.

For quotations inside other quotations, you’ve got to set the inner quotation off from the outer. We use alternating pairs of single and double quotation marks to differentiate between quotes within quotes, to clearly mark where each quote begins and ends.

So inside dialogue, no matter what the reason for the inner quotation marks—a person is quoting another, is using irony, is using a made-up word, or is mentioning something such as a song or short story title—the quotation marks around the inner quotation must be different from those surrounding the dialogue as a whole.

We could put quotes inside quotes inside quotes inside quotes, and the quotes would always be in alternating quotation marks, doubles or singles.

In AmE, the outermost quotation mark is a double. So for dialogue, the spoken text opens and closes with double quotation marks. The first nested quote would then be inside single quotation marks, and a quote within that quote would be in doubles. This alternating between doubles and singles would go on as far as the nested quotations go. (To keep from driving readers mad, limit your nested quotations to three levels.)

“I’m telling you that the boy said, ‘I saw a body.’ ”

“ ‘But I didn’t do it,’ he said to me over and over.”

“Her favorite song is ‘Rainy Days and Mondays.’ ”

“I heard her. She said, ‘My little brother’s first word was “boondoogle.” ’ ”

In British English—although typically not in newspapers—the outer quotation marks are usually singles and therefore the first quote nested inside would be a double.

 ‘I’m telling you that the boy said, “I saw a body.” ’

‘ “But I didn’t do it,” he said to me over and over.’

‘Her favorite song is “Rainy Days and Mondays.” ’

‘I heard her. She said, “My little brother’s first word was ‘boondoogle.’ ” ’

_______________________

Note that you’d never have two double quotation marks or two singles next to one another. Check to make sure you have a matching closing quotation mark for each opening one.

Also, including what’s called a “thin space” between quotation marks as a visual aid for readers can be helpful. Formatters may not like thin spaces, but if you’re submitting to agents or publishers, include them.

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23 Responses to “Quotes Within Quotes”

  1. Steve Lowe says:

    Hi Beth,
    Interestingly, although there are many differences between British & American English, I was surprised to see you say that BrE normally uses single quotation marks, in contrast to AmE. Actually, as a Briton myself, I was always taught to use double quotation marks – for direct speech – which is apparently the same way you use them. The only time we Britons normally use single quotation marks in fiction(these days, at least) is to quote indirect speech, or to report words as spoken by a third person within the original quotation marks, as you say for AmE.

    Alternatively, we usually only use single quotation marks for reported ‘thoughts’, rather than direct speech (as well as for emphasizing peculiar use of words, as an alternative to using italics).

    Maybe the two languages are converging on this, though afaik, it’s been normal to use double quotation marks in BrE all my life, and I am (mumble, mumble) years old :-)

    But as you say, the only important thing is never to use two single or two double quotation marks adjacent to each other, but always alternate them. I’d also second your use of a ‘thin space’, to separate adjacent sets of quotation marks (though in BrE I would use single quotation marks for ‘thin space’, as that’s an example of emphasis of the use of a peculiar word or phrase. And if you cannot use a ‘thin space’, use some other punctuation to separate the quotes, such as a comma or semi colon.

    Regards,
    Steve

    • Steve, maybe the styles are converging, as you say. Or maybe some publishers choose to use singles while others use doubles. Some authors and/or publishers are still using single quotation marks for dialogue.

      I read a mystery last month—A Shocking Assassination (a Reverend Mother mystery)—that used singles. I think the publication date on that one was 2016. And a few weeks back I picked up a romance from about 10 years ago that used single quotation marks for dialogue. And I just did a quick check of two 2016 Booker prize finalists and one used single quotation marks for dialogue. I’m not sure why some publishers go with singles and some go with doubles, but options are available for those who write for BrE audiences.

      BrE does have more allowances for single quotation marks than AmE does. In fiction, pretty much the only time you’ll find singles is with a quote within a quote. AmE uses doubles for other situations when BrE uses singles, as in your examples.

      I wouldn’t suggest punctuation to separate quotation marks. If you can’t use a thin space, a regular space will do.

      And why do I keep typing “think” every time I try to type “thin”?

  2. Is the “thin space” in the “Symbols” section of MS Word?

    • Sally, Peter’s link is a good one. Some Word versions have a 1/4 em space as an option in the insert symbol/special characters dialogue box, but that may not be small enough, depending on the font and font size you’re using. If I need a thin space, I often just create my own, with a size of 6 or 8 points rather than whatever I’m using for the font itself. You can create a style for your thin space as well.

      For submissions to agents and publishers, you can easily use a regular space; they’re not expecting thin spaces. But if you’re formatting for print or having your work formatted, be sure that the issue is addressed.

      Also, consider using a nonbreaking space (in Word, control-shift-spacebar). That way you won’t get words breaking in odd places at the ends of lines.

      • The problem with non-breaking spaces is that they create non-compliant epub files. iTunes requires files that pass ePubCheck validation. Ditto for thin spaces. They break many formatters.

        • Kathy, I have a feeling that there are a lot of formatting issues for e-publishing that we’ll now need to consider. But for print, I’d hate to break text where it shouldn’t be broken.

          Do you have any other good tips?

  3. Peter says:

    Check this article out, Sally. First time I’ve ever dealt with this punctuation …

    https://wordribbon.tips.net/T010626_Creating_Thin_Spaces.html

  4. As writers and editors, I suspect we notice many errors that the world’s burgeoning population of illiterates would never recognize.

    This type of mix irritates me: “I would never do that,” Tom said. His ‘flippant’ attitude bugged me.

    • Kathy, for published books, if I knew that this was a BrE author or publication, this one wouldn’t bother me too much. But I do notice it. I just have to remind myself that it doesn’t have to match in BrE. But for manuscripts that should be AmE, I do point out the issue. (Yet in this example, I wouldn’t use italics for “flippant” at all. Still, I understand what you mean.)

      • Whether you use . . . or …, ellipses should be surrounded by spaces, except in this type of situation: She stomped her foot. “Get out or …”

        All style guides I’ve checked to date agree on that point, including CMS and APS. Not adhering to their advice can cause ugly line breaks.

        • Right, but nonbreaking spaces, right? At least for manuscripts and print. We wouldn’t want the ellipsis to break at the end of a line. The same is true for the space between initials—J. R. I’d use a nonbreaking space there as well. I was wondering about other odd situations for ebooks.

          • Same problem as before. If you use non-breaking spaces, your epubs won’t convert to the satisfaction of sites like iTunes. I use the Word ellipsis symbol (…), which formats perfectly and creates clean line breaks. As an aside, if you use dot-space-dot-space-dot ellipses, non-breaking spaces or not, Word and some other word-processing packages count each dot as one word. See the link I included on my last comment for a post about ellipses on my blog.

  5. phil huston says:

    Really a space before and after ellipses? And then this?

    “boondoogle.” ’ ” Couldn’t boondoggle be attributed to the first inner quote? Just looking at that is distracting. and the space between nested quotes? Is that mandatory? Because it goes all whacked when output to epub which considers any space to be fair game, particularly when modulating down in screen size.

    • Phil, the point of that example was to show three levels of quotes. And, yes, it can be tough for the reader, so you may want to rewrite. In that example, it would be easy to include the word “boondoggle” inside the inner quote. But with a rewording, you’d definitely need all three sets of quotation marks.

      “I heard her. She said, ‘My little brother loves the word “boondoogle.” ’ ”

      The space is a visual aid for the reader. When they see “‘”, how would they know what it meant?

      Yes, as both you and Kathy have pointed out, the spacing causes problems for e-books. But it doesn’t cause those same problems for print books. Maybe the epublishers will do something to make spaces work better in ebooks.

      • phil huston says:

        Could that be re written a little more conversationally? Like

        “I heard her. She said, ‘My little brother loves to say the word the word boondoogle.” And let the inference give you a pass on the excess quotes?

        I’m really not being picky. I can go a global search for the nefarious … and add the spaces, but all that punctuation is yuk.

  6. This is getting silly. The original “quotes within quotes” post was intended to inform readers/writers what the standard is. There’s nothing requiring the writer to deliberately manufacture a sentence with quotes within quotes within quotes. Just rewrite the thing into something less unwieldy. The standard is there in the event that the writer does end up having to deliver this level of clumsiness.

    • phil huston says:

      In my distant youth I kne this old blues guitar player, who when you sat in would offer commentary on how you did. Sometimes it was good, sometimes it was bad. When it was on point? “Bold, and well told.” Amen. And thank you both. You don’t have to deal with the stinky stuff on your shoe if you don’t step in it in the first place.

  7. Anna says:

    Hi Beth

    Interesting. Just for the record, I’m British, always use double quote marks for direct speech and my British editor has never corrected it. I think we just have more variation here, as certainly both ways appear to be acceptable and I can’t say that I’ve noticed that one is more prevalent than the other.

    This struck me, in your example of BE usage:

    ‘I heard her. She said, “My little brother’s first word was ‘boondoogle.’ ” ’

    In British English, we don’t put the full stop (period) inside the quote marks like that, but punctuate the entire sentence. So if you strip it down to what she said:

    She said, “My little brother’s first word was ‘boondoogle’.” would be the correct BE way, I think.

    Adding the next layer back in complicates things, but I think it would be

    ‘I heard her. She said, “My little brother’s first word was ‘boondoogle’ ”.’

    I *think*, because that level of nesting quotations is insanely complicated. I’d definitely rewrite it.

    • Steve Lowe says:

      Hi Anna,

      Yes, as a fellow Briton that’s how I’ve been taught to write quotes within quotes: with the ‘period’ (full stop as we call it) inside the final (outside) quotation mark (however many may precede it within the sentence). It’s what I meant by using punctuation marks to separate adjacent sets of quotation marks if you don’t use a ‘thin space’. One way or another (however many sets of adjacent quotation marks there are in a sentence) they should all be separated from each other – either by a space or a piece of punctuation. Otherwise, the average reader (who was never taught any of this stuff) probably *will* get confused :-)

      Cheers,
      Steve

      • Phil Huston says:

        As I would generally agree, I have no problem with “Blah, blah, ‘blech.'” I suppose because I see it coming.

        “Blah, blah, ‘blech’.” Okay as well only to me it looks clumsier. And the whole bit about spaces, thin spaces, etc. looks like wasted air to me. Just personal. ” ‘Blah.’ ” regardless of where punctuation lies is giving too much visual weight to a sentence component. The “easiest” out is to write the sentence in such a way that the twain ‘ and ” sheall never meet.

  8. Steve Lowe says:

    Hmmm… well Phil & I usually tend to agree on most things – most things :-) But I wouldn’t say that using either a space or a piece of punctuation to separate two sets of quotation marks is ‘clumsy’; far from it! The whole point of spaces & punctuation marks is to separate words into intelligible narrative (instead of a stream of confusing gibberish). So it makes perfect sense to use them to separate adjacent sets of quotation marks that might otherwise similarly confuse a reader. What *does* look clumsy to me is having adjacent sets of quotation marks *without* any spaces or punctuation to separate them. Anything that makes me have to go back and re-read a piece of text is bad news, whether that’s the result of a lack of dialogue tags (a pet hate of mine) a lack of proper punctuation or words/quotation marks not separated adequately.

    Surely, the name of the game (in all writing) is legibility, ain’t that right, people? So anything that helps avoid confusion for the reader has to be a good thing…

    Cheers,
    Steve

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