Write well. Write often. Edit wisely.
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.