The Writer’s Toolbox – You Can Quote Me On That, Part II

In The Writer’s Toolbox last week we looked at what happens when punctuation and quotation marks mix. Here’s a quick refresher: the general rule is that commas and periods go inside quotation marks, and colons, semicolons, ellipses, question marks, and exclamation points go outside quotation marks (except when they’re part of the original quote).

That sounds pretty straightforward, right? Unfortunately, as with most grammatical issues, things get a little more complicated when you add quotes within quotes and multiple punctuation marks to the mix. Over the next two weeks we’ll examine some of these more difficult situations?and discuss how to sort them all out.

Quotes within quotes

One of the most common quotation punctuation issues arises when You’re faced with a quotation set within another quotation (or more). However, It’s quite manageable if you break it down into two steps.

First, ensure that the formatting is correct.
In order to avoid confusion, concentric quotations alternate between double and single quotation marks. Start with the outermost set; they should be double, if You’re following the American style. Moving inward, the next set of quotation marks are singles; any sets deeper inside the sentence follow the same pattern.

Example A: She said, ?I don’t understand the meaning of the line ?Life’s but a walking shadow.??

Quotation marks always come in pairs, so make sure each opening quotation mark has its matching closing mark. And if you have a double and a single quotation mark side by side, do not separate them with a space (publishers will typically insert a so-called thin space for readability, but this is not standard for essays or manuscripts).

Second, deal with the punctuation.
This step is surprisingly simple; for the most part, you can still follow the general rule. First, treat each nested quote as its own entity; then apply the general rule. If you end up with two sets of quotation marks next to each other, treat them as one for the purposes of the general rule.

Example B: ?The letter stated, ?All non-citizens should attend the Monday afternoon meeting,? so I went,? I said. Here the general rule is applied to each quotation as if it were standing alone.

Example C: ?The letter stated, ?All non-citizens should attend the Monday afternoon meeting,?? I said. Here, because the position of the inner quotation means that both ending quotation marks end up side by side, the general rule has been applied as though there were just one set of quotation marks.

Quotation marks within quotation marks are actually quite manageable if you work through them this way. Next week we’ll cover another complicated issue?how to handle multiple punctuation marks mixed up with quotation marks?and another set of steps to demystify the problem.

Christina M. Frey is a book editor and a lover of great writing. Chat with her on Twitter about all things literary @turntopage2.

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