Rules for Punctuating Quotations inside Quotations

In English, rules about punctuation with quotation marks are little complicated. But here is the most complicated situation of all. Sometimes you need to place a quotation inside a quotation. Yikes. How on earth to you punctuate that? Consider this situation:

Al, President of the Future Engineers of America, sees himself as a paragon of popularity. He doesn’t want Archie to join the club because Archie wears a plastic pocket-protector filled with pens and pencils. Al wants Archie to dump the pocket-protector, but Archie is outraged by the demand. You’re writing a story about Archie and the Future Engineers of America. You’re quoting Archie, who is quoting Al. How do you punctuate this quotation?

Archie says, “Al had the nerve to tell me, ‘Your pocket protector is nerd-city and dumpster-ready.’”

A sentence like this has to be sorted out. Without any punctuation, here’s what Al said:

Your pocket protector is nerd-city and dumpster-ready.

Without any punctuation, here are all the words that Archie said:

Al had the nerve to tell me your pocket protector is nerd-city and dumpster-ready.

Al’s words are a quotation inside another quotation. So Al’s words are enclosed in single-quotation marks, and Archie’s are enclosed (in the usual way) in double quotation marks.

A quotation inside another quotation gets single quotation marks.

Another example: Lola says, “I’m thinking of piercing my tongue.” Lulu tells Lola’s mom about Lola’s plan, adding a comment as she does so. Here’s the complete statement:

Lulu says, “As a strong opponent of piercing, I am sorry to tell you that Lola told me, ‘I’m thinking of piercing my tongue.’”

Lola’s words are inside single quotation marks and Lulu’s complete statement is in double quotation marks.

Commas and periods follow the same rules in both double and single quotations.

Despite having settled their differences shortly after the Boston Tea Party, Britain and America are still fighting over grammar rules. So often the rules for American English grammar are the opposite of British English grammar rules. The British frequently use single quotation marks when they’re quoting, and double marks for a quotation inside another quotation. Thus a British book might punctuate Lulu’s comment in this way:

Lulu says, ‘As a strong opponent of piercing, I am sorry to tell you that Lola told me, “I’m thinking of piercing my tongue.”’

The name of the quotations marks is also different. In British English, the little squiggles are called “inverted commas.” What’s a puzzled grammarian to do? Follow the custom of the country he or she is in.

And now a little test, to check your knowledge: which sentence is correct?

A. Angel complained, “He said to me, ‘You are a devil.’”
B. Angel complained, “He said to me, “You are a devil.”

Answer: Sentence A is correct. You must enclose You are a devil in single quotation marks and the larger statement He said to me you are a devil in double quotation marks. The period at the end of the sentence goes inside both marks.

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