Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Writing 101: Quotes Within Quotes

Ever told someone about a song you like, and they didn't recognize it, so you had to sing a few lines? Ever mention a great line you heard on that TV show you love? Ever told a friend what another friend said about them, word for word? Yeah, there are lots of reasons why you might need to use quotes within quotes when you're writing. Don't ignore the simple punctuation rules that dictate exactly how you're allowed to do it. 

Double Punctuation, and Other Disasters

Lots of things have to be enclosed in quotation marks when you're writing. Proper titles of magazine articles, exact quotes, clever nicknames, popular sayings -- you might use quotes around all that stuff. But if you're already using quotes because you're mentioning these things in dialogue, then you've got to use a form of double punctuation: quotes within quotes.

It's really easy to get them wrong. It doesn't help that there's a lot of confusion surrounding proper quotation punctuation in the first place; the British do it differently than the Americans, and it turns into a punctuation free-for-all where authors have trouble figuring out the proper format and going a wildly inconsistent route instead. 

But I digress. Here's all you need to know about quotes within quotes: you can't repeat the same mark consecutively. What's that mean? I'll show you:

"Mary told me that her and Johnny are just 'friends.'" Christie rolled her eyes when she said it, making her own opinion on the matter pretty clear. 

It goes without saying that you won't put quotes in red when you're writing, but I'm making a point. The single quotation mark is surrounding friends because Christie is repeating a direct quote from Mary, as the passage explains. Both the single quotation and the double quotation, which is at the end of the sentence because it closes the dialogue being spoken aloud, are behind the period. It looks terrible. 

But it's technically correct. Now, you may not always be ending a sentence on a quote, but basic punctuation rules still apply. 

"She told me last week that she would 'consider it' if he asked her out, though," Becca offered.

No additional punctuation is required with the single quotation mark inside the dialogue above; I'm treating it the exact same way I would treat double quotation marks. 

More importantly, I'm not repeating quotation marks. The double quotes go around the entire piece of dialogue, as is proper, but I'm using single marks around the quote inside that dialogue. I wouldn't use double quotes around consider it (to use the previous example) because it's just too darned confusing (and also incorrect). 

If you're writing in the Queen's English and you read the Oxford English Dictionary instead of American Heritage, flip it around. Sometimes, British writers use single quotations around dialogue instead of double, but the rules don't change. Don't repeat the same quotation mark type if you're writing quotes within quotes. It's either double-single-single-double, or single-double-double-single, and those are your only two options.

That's what I love about punctuation. It's always very cut-and-dry, with definite rules. Punctuation is one of the only things you can get right for sure, because readers are going to have an opinion about everything else.

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