Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Awkward Punctuation: When a Single Quotation Mark Directly Precedes Double Quotation Marks

I find quotes within quotes cumbersome. (Quotes within quotes within quotes, in my view, are unacceptable. I would advocate rewriting and reworking text to avoid third-generation quotations whenever possible.) What most irritates me when quoting someone who is quoting someone else is having to close both the primary and secondary quotes at the same time at the end of a sentence. For example: Kermit said, "Scooter told me that Gonzo said, 'I've lost my chickens.' "

Style manuals disagree on how to treat a single quotation mark directly followed by a double quotation mark. Some prefer a space (' "); others do not ('"). In my opinion placing a space between the single and double quotation marks always looks awkward. Moreover, Microsoft® Word® has fits with this construction. Many fonts differentiate between initial and closing quotation marks. When quotation marks are preceded by a space, Word assumes that they are beginning a quote and automatically makes them initial (or right-side-up) quotation marks. (See the illustration above and to the right.) When writing for the web, one cannot always control when one line ends and the next begins; thus the space sometimes pushes the double quotation mark, by itself, to the next line.

" This, for example, just looks bad.

Omitting the space, on the other hand, fuses the marks together creating what appears to be a triple quotation mark.

My solution: When a single quotation mark directly precedes a double quotation mark, omit the single. (That is: Kermit said, "Scooter told me that Gonzo said, 'I've lost my chickens.") It seems incomplete, but such a rule is not unprecedented. Take for example this sentence: Fozzie asked, "Why are you throwing tomatoes at me?" While the quotation is interrogative and requires a question mark, the sentence itself is declarative (it tells you what Fozzie asked); by rule, declarative sentences end in periods. Logic would suggest the following: Fozzie asked, "Why are you throwing tomatoes at me?". It looks ugly but makes sense. In the interest of simplicity and aesthetics, we eliminate the period. Why not do the same with the single quotation mark?


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