A few different readers have written in to me asking how to quote a quote within a quote. Sounds like a mouthful, doesn’t it?
This is a topic that has almost certainly confused each and every one of us in our reading and writing at some point or another. When do we use single quotes? Where does the punctuation go in single quotes?
The different uses of single vs. double quotes are actually quite easy and intuitive once you understand the rules involved.
Let’s get started on how to use quotation marks.
Putting a Quote Within a Quote
When you have a quotation that is inside of another quotation it is called a nested quotation. Nested quotes follow a hierarchical structure of alternating between double quotation marks and single quotation marks.
In marking such quotations, American and English writers and editors have developed different conventions, and, therefore, have different rules for when to use single quotes.
I’ll start by outlining how quotation rules as followed by American writers.
Quotes In American English
If you are a writer in America, or your audience is primarily American, here are the basic rules of putting quotes within quotes.
- Double quotation marks are used for the first quotation.
- Single quotation marks are used for a quotation within a quotation.
- Double marks are used for a further quotation inside that, etc.
- “John shouted at Steve, ‘You’re doing it all wrong.’ ”
- “The governor has prior obligations and said he ‘wishes he could be in attendance today.’ “
- “The weatherman said, ‘This weekend should be filled with blue skies.’ “
Notice that the secondary quote in each example is placed within single quotation marks. Also, notice that the periods are placed inside the single quotes. The American rule is that periods always go inside the quotation marks (more on that below).
If you find yourself writing a quote within a quote within a quote, i.e., three layers deep, it’s probably best to rework your sentence. Three levels of quotations are a bit much for the reader to make sense of.
If, however, a sentence rework is impossible, just add another level of hierarchy. Your sentence would look like this, Double>Single>Double.
- “Joan emphatically said, ‘We won’t sing “God Save the Queen.” ’ ”
It is, of course, a very rare occasion to see a sentence this complicated.
Quotes in British English
The British English practice of single and double quotes is precisely the opposite of American English. Here are the basic rules of putting quotes within quotes in British English.
- Single quotation marks are used for the first quotation.
- Double quotation marks are used for a quotation within a quotation.
- Single marks are used for a further quotation inside that, etc.
- ‘John shouted at Steve, “You’re doing it all wrong”. ’
- ‘The governor has prior obligations and said he “wishes he could be in attendance today”. ’
- ‘The weatherman said, “This weekend should be filled with blue skies”. ’
As you can see, everything in British English is flipped. The secondary quotes now have double quotations around them. Also, the periods are outside of the closing quotation mark.
Does Punctuation Go Inside Quotation Marks?
In a quotation, is the period before or after quotes?
As with the use of single and double quotation marks, the punctuation practices vary across American and British English.
Punctuation in American English
In American English, periods and commas are placed within the closing quotation mark, whether or not the punctuation is actually a part of the quoted matter.
- The governor met with “hundreds of protesters today.”
- He said that he “refuses to go to the movies,” but I think he will come around.
The dash, semicolon, question mark, and the exclamation point go within the quotation marks when they apply to the quoted material only. They go outside when they apply to the whole sentence.
- The speaker asked the audience, “Are you having a good time?”
- Did he really say, “We’re breaking up”?
Punctuation in British English
In British English, periods and commas are placed outside of the closing quotation mark, unless these marks form part of the quotation itself.
- The governor met with ‘hundreds of protesters today’.
- He said that he ‘refuses to go to the movies’, but I think he will come around.
With respect to the dash, semicolon, question mark, and exclamation point, the American English and British English practice is the same. These marks go inside the quotation marks when they apply to the quoted material only. They go outside when they apply to the whole sentence.
- The speaker asked the audience, ‘Are you having a good time?’
- Did he really say, ‘We’re breaking up’?
I hope this helps anyone wondering how to quote a quote and when to use single quotes. If you are an American writer, you can ignore the British English sections of this post. Similarly, if you are a British writer, you can ignore the American English sections on punctuation and style.
In this post, we covered using quotation marks: quotation marks and periods, commas and quotation marks, question marks inside quotes, and other quotation mark rules.
Here are the three takeaway points.
- When you put a quote inside a quote, you alternate between double and single quotation marks.
- In American English, you start with double quotation marks, and then single quotation marks.
- In British English, you start with single quotation marks, and then double quotation marks.