When you’re learning how to quote a quote within a quote, the key is to use double quotation marks for the main quote and single quotation marks for the inner quote. However, if you’re writing in UK English, you’ll want to do the opposite.
Quotation within a quotation: examples
Sometimes following the rule for quotes inside quotes sounds simple until you try to do it. That’s when looking closely at a handful of examples might help you.
Let’s start by looking at this US or Canadian English example that quotes from Dave Barry’s column:
About a malfunctioning kitchen sink, Dave Barry wrote, “I first tried the usual homeowner remedy, which is to buy a bottle of lethal chemicals at the supermarket and pour the contents down the drain. The plumbing laughed at me. ‘That might work on Arbor Day,’ it gurgled. ‘But this is Christmas.’ ”
Note that double quotation marks, or quote marks, surround the entire quote, but single quotation marks surround the inner quote. Double and single quote marks appear together at the end. In US English, periods and commas always go inside the quote marks.
And now let’s look at an example in UK English, which would also be correct for Australian English. It comes from JulesSmith.co.uk.
In a hilarious post about undergoing gallbladder surgery, Jules Smith describes her encounter with hospital staff. She refers to them as ‘The Shining nurse’ and a ‘sneaky anaesthetist’, whom she also calls a ‘drug lord’. She recalls the conversation she had with them while in her newly medicated state: ‘ “You might start to feel a bit druggy”, interrupted the anaesthetist. A bit druggy? What kind of lingo is that for a top-paid medical professional, eh? I have to say, that made me like him.’
Besides the reversed use of single and double quotation marks, note that UK English places periods and commas outside of the quotation marks unless they are actually part of what’s being quoted. For example, the comma after “sneaky anaesthetist” is not there in the actual blog post, so it’s not part of the quote. Similarly, the comma at the end of the anesthetist’s statement is part of what Jules wrote in her blog post but is not part of what the anesthetist said.
In rare cases, quotes within quotes may go even further: you could have a quote within a quote within a quote. When this happens, the technically correct approach is to follow the rule by alternating single and double quotation marks:
Pedro nodded and said, “She announced, ‘I’m reading an article titled “How to Train Your Puppy.” ’ ”
But it’s usually better to paraphrase instead of quoting in these instances—it looks neater on the page and is easier for readers to navigate. This way, you can get rid of one set of quotation marks, or even two:
Pedro nodded and said, “She announced she was reading an article titled ‘How to Train Your Puppy.’ ”
Pedro nodded and said that Pilar had announced she was reading an article titled “How to Train Your Puppy.”
Quotes within quotes and other punctuation
So what happens if the quote within a quote ends with punctuation other than a comma or period? In US English, a question mark or exclamation mark goes inside the quotation marks with the part of the sentence it belongs to. Here are some examples.
“ ‘Where’s the dog?’ was the first question,” Maria said. (The question is the inner quote, not the main quote.)
Maria told me about the mess. She said, “The first question was ‘Where’s the dog?’ ” (The question is the inner quote, not the main quote.)
I asked her, “Who cares about ‘the first question’?” (The question is the main quote, not the inner quote.)
Then Pilar came in and said, “I care, so you don’t need to grumble, ‘Who cares?’ ” (The question is the inner quote, not the main quote.)
The rule is also simple for colons and semicolons: when they appear right next to quotation marks, they always go on the outside.
Maria shook her head and said, “Pilar, I read that article too. It said, “The best way to potty train your puppy is to take him outside regularly’ ”; however, Pilar was clearly not listening.
Space between single and double quotation marks
When you’re learning how to nest quotes inside quotes, you may encounter conflicting information about whether you need to add space between the quotation marks when a single mark appears right next to double marks.
The simple answer is it’s not required. However, some style guides give you the option to do so if you think it makes your writing clearer. For example, the Chicago Manual of Style recommends adding a space. It also points out that in electronic formats, it’s helpful to add a nonbreaking space between paired single and double quotation marks to prevent them from separating over two lines.
You may have noticed this is the approach we take in the examples above, for the same reason: clarity.
A block quote is an easy way to make a longer quote stand out and can also make it easier to read. According to most style guides, block quotes don’t need quotation marks around them because indenting them makes it clear that they’re quotes. This means you can use quotation marks only around a quote that appears within a block quote. Take a look at the example below from an article on Cracked.com.
In his 2013 book Dad Is Fat, Jim Gaffigan commented on how unlikely it was that someone like him would end up being a family man. “Ten years ago, I could barely get a date,” he wrote, “and now my apartment is literally crawling with babies. . . . I suppose I had a romantic notion of having children someday, but, then again, I also had a romantic notion of being an astronaut, and, honestly, being an astronaut felt like a more realistic expectation.”
Though the entire indented passage here is a direct quote from the article, only the inner quote has quotation marks around it. In UK English, these would be single quote marks rather than double ones.
Other uses of single quote marks
You might have been taught to use single quotes in some cases, such as to emphasize a word or show sarcasm, and double quotes only for spoken discourse. This is a common error. If you’re writing in US English, the only correct use for single quote marks is quotations within quotations.
However, some style guides bend this rule a bit. For example, AP style has a particular focus on saving space, so it uses single quote marks in headlines that include quotes or titles of works:
AP style headline with quote: Powell says 'no decision' on the Fed's next move on rates
AP style headline with title: ‘Stranger at the Gate,’ an Oscar nominee on love after hate
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Is it quote on quote or quote-unquote?
Quote on quote is an eggcorn, a misunderstood pronunciation of quote-unquote, which is an idiom that indicates you’re quoting someone while you’re speaking aloud. For example, someone might say, “In his speech, President Biden said, quote-unquote, ‘America is an idea.’ ” While this phrase is common, it’s not necessary.
How do you cite a quote of a quote?
If you need to cite a quote of a quote, for example, because the person who’s quoting it has added valuable commentary, you simply cite the main quote that contains the other quote. But if the inner quote is the one you need, it’s best to find its original source and cite that instead. Most academic style guides recommend citing primary rather than secondary sources.