The title works well if you’re in the U.S. If you’re in England, it’s backwards. That is, the British model has single quotes on the outside and double quotes on the inside, if a quote is being quoted.
Either way makes sense, really. The important thing here is consistency — and/or perhaps knowing what your audience expects. And again, as before, commas and periods almost always go inside the quotes (for American English) and question marks and exclamation marks go where they logically fit.
Examples of question marks and nested quotations:
Mildred began, “And then Edna screamed, ‘Who put a frog in my peanut butter sandwich?’”
Note in the above example that even though Mildred’s statement itself is not a question, Edna is asking a question. The question is “stronger” than the period, so the whole thing has a question mark as the ending punctuation (well, besides the quotation marks, of course).
Mildred asked, “Did you hear Edna scream, ‘There is a frog in my peanut butter sandwich’?”
In the above example, Mildred is asking the question, while Edna is must making a statement. If I were Edna, I probably would have used an exclamation mark. If that happens (if you have both a question and exclamation), you use both:
Mildred asked, “Did you hear Edna scream, ‘There is a frog in my peanut butter sandwich!’?”
Was it Mildred who asked, “Did you hear Edna scream, ‘There is a frog in my peanut butter sandwich’”?
Now, in the above example, Mildred is asking a question, but the narrator is also asking a question (about Mildred). The outermost question mark wins.
Did she say, “He said, ‘She said, “He said, ‘She said, “He said, ‘She said, “Hey”‘”‘”‘”?
That’s silly, I know.
What do you do if you are quoting someone who makes an error, and you don’t want to change what the person said, but you also don’t want the reader to think you’re an idiot?
I asked George how he’s doing. George said, “I’m doing good [sic].”
As far as you know, George isn’t helping an old lady across the street. George is doing well, but he’s not doing good. To point that out, use “[sic]” and the world will be happy.
Language is a funny thing. Not only do we have the infamous (and sometimes odd) irregular conjugations in English (but not in languages such as Mandarin Chinese, where verb conjugation doesn’t really occur), but we have markings such as commas, colons, semi-colons, periods, question marks, exclamation marks, single quotes and doubles quotes (I don’t even really want to mention hyphens and dashes at the moment, but I supposes I will). Oh, and we have parentheses too, and apostrophes and even brackets sometimes.
So who can tell me definitively how quotation marks are used?
No hands? Good. Why is it good? It’s good because the answer is not really definitive, at least in the “one size fits all” definition of definitive. How you use quotation marks depends on your context. Are you in the United States or are you in England (or anywhere else with British influence) or elsewhere? Context also depends upon your audience, your professor, and perhaps even your upbringing.
Since I am in the U.S., that’s where my focus will be for this post.
Most of you probably know the rule that when quoting something, the ending period goes inside the double quote mark at the end. For example:
Mr. Smithers said, “Gladys, the boa constrictor is trying to eat your bratwurst.”
This illustrates several important rules. First of all, note the comma after the word “said.” Second, note that the opening double quote mark comes after that comma. Third, the period ending the sentence comes before the closing double quote mark.
I know you are worried about Gladys. How does she know Mr. Smithers? Are they friends? Are they married (to each other)? Why is the boa constrictor trying to eat her bratwurst? Whose snake is it? We’ll figure that out. Be patient.
Now, how do you handle periods at the end of sentences if the last word in the sentence is enclosed in quotes but is not a quote? That is, if the word is used ironically but is not something that someone uttered, then it might be the case that the word is in quotes.
Gladys was aghast that Algernon had spied her “pet.”
The word “pet” is not something that someone has said, but it is in quotes because it is being used ironically. Now, the whole question of whether pet should be used ironically here is moot … that’s not the point of this discussion. Just live with it, folks. The point is that if you have a word or phrase like that at the end of the sentence, the closing period needs to be inside the quotes, as demonstrated above.
Who says this is the way to do it? The Chicago Manual of Style says it, that’s who, along with several other online resources I had to double check this morning.
Now, here’s something interesting. If the thing being quoted at the end of a sentence is a single character or a number, then the period goes outside the quotation mark.
He marked the spot on the treasure map with an “X”.
Tell me how you feel, on a scale of “1″ to “10″.
Now, what if the ending punctuation is not a period but is a question mark? Good question — and the answer is determined by the following. Is it the thing quoted that asks the question, or does the sentence itself (including something quoted) ask the question)? In other words, it could look like this.
Gladys asked, “I wonder if I should cry for help?”
It makes sense that the question mark is inside the quotes, because Gladys is asking a question and she is being quoted.
Did you hear somebody saying “Help”?
Here, we have a comma after saying because the thing quoted is not really being said. Note, though, that the whole sentence is a question, but the word “help” is not really instrumental in making it a question. You may as well ask if you heard someone saying “banana.”
Did you hear somebody saying “Banana”?
The quoted word is not the question, so it does not include the question mark inside the quotes. The same concept at work for question marks also applies for exclamation marks.
Simple enough, right?
Now, what about quotes inside of quotes?
What happens when you want to quote something with an error in it?
We’ll touch on those next time.
Meanwhile, keep reading your Aunt Ruth book!
In case you’re feeling kind of Poe-ish tonight, here’s something to calm your nerves. I selected this because of the nice use of quotes and an apostrophe in the last sentence.
Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore –
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of someone gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
“‘Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door–
Only this and nothing more.”