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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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37 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

  9. Cassie says:

    Beth, I have a question about quotation marks vs italics that I hope you can answer. In third person POV, my main character is recalling statements made to him by his assistant:

    His office would not be a welcoming sanctuary without her handprint. Her touch was everywhere, from the carefully selected reading material, “Matt, we are not putting psych magazines in the waiting room. You don’t need people self-diagnosing themselves” to the flourishing greenery in his office, “It’s been proven plants can be beneficial in lifting a person’s spirits” to the tastefully displayed artwork, “It has to be cheerful and uplifting without being in-your-face. Patients shouldn’t feel like we’re hitting them over the head to be cheerful.”

    My question is italics or quotes for the recounted dialogue and should there be commas before each?

    Thanks so much! Your blog is a godsend!

    • Cassie, I’m inclined to go with Sally’s suggestion of setting the recounted dialogue off with dashes. Inside the dashes you could use either quotation marks or italics. You’re quoting what was said, so quotation marks work well. But if you want to suggest that Matt is hearing the quotes in his head, maybe hearing them in a less than exact way, italics would serve your purpose. No commas with the dashes.

      I don’t suggest using parentheses because they’re more noticeable as something unusual and might catch the reader’s attention in an unintended way. Parentheses seem to indicate that the character or author is aware of the reader, something you may not want to imply.

      I’m glad you find the site useful. Come back often.

  10. I’d be inclined to use em dashes and quotation marks, or parentheses and quotation marks.

    For example,

    …from the carefully selected reading material—“Matt, we are not putting psych magazines in the waiting room. You don’t need people self-diagnosing themselves”—to the flourishing greenery in his office—“It’s been proven plants can be beneficial in lifting a person’s spirits”—to the tastefully…

    or

    …from the carefully selected reading material (“Matt, we are not putting psych magazines in the waiting room. You don’t need people self-diagnosing themselves”) to the flourishing greenery in his office (“It’s been proven plants can be beneficial in lifting a person’s spirits”) to the tastefully…

    For me, these two options separate the prose from the quote without divorcing it entirely, retaining the obvious connection, but signalling with concrete examples (the quotations) to the reader how the office assistant beneficially influences the office decor and atmosphere.

    • phil h says:

      Jeez…the parentheses. Please. The real problem with grammar rules? Maybe. Maybe this, maybe that, try a pinch of these. If grammar and traffic rules got together people would just walk. An em dash can be, oh, whatever I need it for. And those three little period things? A space on either side. Unless of course you are publiching a national magazine of some repute or sold sixty million books, then, you know, what the heck. Capitalize after? If you want. Or not. And those em dash thi — Hey! Don’t interrupt me I was going to put an aside quote in here!

      So, if out of bounds is only out of bounds on days with T in them, the parentheses get my vote for caching aside but dubiously rendered supporting dialogue. What if whoever is speaking, besides an Omni narrator, told an engaging story about how the office got designed at the hands of an office assistant? Then — Stop it! I wasn’t finished! Oh well. Phil shook his head. (“Honey? Have you seen the lighter I use for the grill?” The garage? Okay.”) And promptly set fire to all of his grammar books. Because a fumble is only a fumble and stop only means stop on odd numbered days with an E.

      • Easy there, Phil, I hope your comments aren’t intended to be as angry as they sound! I only said I’d be inclined – my suggestions are not hard and fast rules by any means. If there wasn’t a lot of wiggle room in some of these grammar standards, nobody would ask for guidance.

        • phil h says:

          No anger, definitely not directed at anyone. dark humor tinged with frustration.

          My point. If traffic signs were done by grammarians, everyone with an automobile would be dead. Because maybe maybe maybe. Or well, either or will do. No one commits.MLA, APA, CMS. I even have them all encapsulated in “The Little Seagull.” all probably outdated by this year’s crop or revisions. No matter how we try to self edit, like self lawyering, we come to the realization that a professional needs to go through our work, grammar book in hand. But it is to the point that authors need to say “In this work my em dashes mean x, and my ellipsis mean y and my single quotes mean z and inner thoughts are not italicized because they aren’t album, or movie or book titles, but if you think they should be, send it back and I’ll do it because you shouldn’t have to sort that out.” And then, please leave out all the stuff that looks good on paper and goes funky in epub. Or do that last and save a copy without it.

          That’s what I’m getting at. This site is self editor’s and writer’s goldmine of suggestions and how to look at content and dialogue and a lot of other things. but the grammar, and pardon my word, “junque”, is nothing but conflicting opinions and suggestions. An em dash being good for 3 different things in a work is the equivalent of changing the meaning of the + sign in an equation. All I’m saying.

          It’s this, or it isn’t. It’s parenthetic or it isn’t. But, to quote the Moody Blues “Late Lament” that just l blew past me, it’s down to “We decide which is right, and which is an illusion.” And to me, lately, grammar “rules” are exactly that. An illusion. Including al the ones I’ve broken in this post ;0
          ,

          • I got a distinct sense of frustration from you, all right. and you are right on many counts. Grammar is so badly taught today, if at all, that no one knows what is standard and what is not. And many people aren’t aware that standards exist. We now have younger-generation editors who don’t know enough to use the Chicago Manual of Style; I see more and more badly edited articles out there, some of them in professional writing magazines (!). And as you point out, if you are going to use an element of punctuation one certain way, keep it consistent throughout the work.

            I’m noodling around currently with using an en dash to set apart the direct inner thoughts of the characters in my WIP.

            For example:
            He thought about the first time they met. –Why doesn’t she look me in the eye for more than an instant?–

            I don’t want to use italics, for I find them hard to read. I don’t want to use quotation marks, so as not to confuse them with spoken words. I have seen the en dash used in this way once in a book quite some time ago, which is where I got the idea. I’m not entirely sold on the idea yet, but it is still an option. I will see what kind of comments I get from a few beta readers.

            Always something to tie up one’s stuff in a ball of wax,,,

          • Phil h says:

            Amen. I just let the inner thoughts roll and used a technique of not using words like thought or considered or any of those and just put the character somewhere with their thoughts. Sitting on stairs, looking a photo. Or just a response to an event without ‘thought” or any of that.

            Assume we know who is speaking, or how we got here

            The first time they met? Why couldn’t she look me (him) in the eye for more than an instant?

            I rarely write in first person because I, me, them, they can get messy. He, she, them they can “think” almost in narrative.

            She sat on the stairs in the foyer of her flat building, face in her hands and felt the complete emptiness of everything. School, Jackson, her friends. Were they really? Friends? Catorina kept the guys away and some days she wished she wouldn’t. She smiled. Jackson. Man, the day he’d taught her to drive his car? She almost put it in the Dillards entryway. She doodled on the steps with her finger. What had he said? “Damn good thing it’s Sunday, D. What are we gonna to do about the newspaper racks?” She could be home in eight hours. No today though. Not today.

            First person almost demands that “thought’ or “remembered” but there are ways to wrote around extra punctuation. Make it part, instead of ostracizing it maybe? I don’t know. Just a thought.

  11. phil h says:

    Pardon the typos…Jeez! Thumb typing 101.

    • Are you an adherent of one of these two typing methods?
      Biblical:- “Seek and ye shall find”
      Columbus: – “Explore and land”

      • phil h says:

        The internet is weird enough without getting into sniper wars and all that. But yeah, frustration. We could edit until we keel over. Adnt he story is the point. Phrasing is the point. And every so often my anti-establishment roots pop up. So…

        As for that typing thing. I out-think my typing. I have tried to blame Bluetooth, but like a piano, the notes are always where they are andit’s my fingers that aren’t where they should be.

        • You got that right. The whole point of writing a story is writing the story. And we can edit it to death, so we need to find that balance between (that unattainable) perfection in revision and knowing when to release it into the world to fly on its own wings. It’ll never be perfect, but it will always be true to where you were at that time in your life.

  12. Phil, it definitely looks like it’s been a tough day, but here’s my reminder to keep the debate civil. Since it’s so hard for others who don’t know us to understand where we’re coming from, our passions or frustrations can be taken in a way we didn’t intend. And I know you know that, so I’ll stop my lecture there.

    I want all who come to the blog to feel free to offer their opinions and to participate in the dialogue no matter what those opinions are; I definitely don’t want them feeling attacked personally. Heated debate on a topic is great—if it leads to revelation and not strife. Thanks for explaining to Sally that you weren’t directing anger her way.

    ———–
    As for your frustration about grammar rules and such—I’m afraid that if you’re looking for absolutes and only absolutes, you won’t find them in writing, especially in fiction.

    Rules work well often, but they sometimes work spectacularly well when they’re broken. It’s the breaking of a rule that sometimes creates great literature. But if rules were broken all the time, readers wouldn’t be able to follow a story.

    In a simple example, we use a period to end sentences—except when we don’t. Most sentences get a period, that’s true. But some end with question marks, others with exclamation points. Some end in dashes, in an ellipsis, with a quotation mark. We use other options to create a diverse world of effects and maybe to communicate something slightly—or even majorly—different from the norm.

    I would hate to have absolute rules for every part of writing; I need variety in my reading just as I need it in my eating. I love chocolate cookies, but sometimes I want lemon bars. Both meet my sweet tooth cravings. We have the same needs in writing; there are always multiple ways to say something or to create an emotion. Yes, rules are beyond helpful, but sometimes the rule doesn’t fit the situation or the situation doesn’t fit the rule.

    And don’t we love having to work at the craft, to make our writing uniquely our own rather than force it to be the clone of everyone else’s writing?

    —————-
    A good discussion, guys.