Wednesday, April 29, 2009

WNW: Those Hook-Looking Thingys

We're working out the final bugs on There, Their, They're: A No-Tears Guide to Grammar from the Word Nerd. If I don't run into any more snags, it should be available to order on Monday. For those who pre-ordered at last week's conference, I'll ship them to you as soon as I get them in hand.

Today's topic is one I was asked about in my conference workshop last weekend:

How do you use single quotation marks?
This is gonna be fun, because I just might get a little wonky and out of control with it . . .

Note: We're talking U.S. punctuation rules here, not UK rules.

Here's the good part of using single quotation marks: you almost never need them.
Don't use them when you're describing a sarcastic line and using air quotes.
Don't use them for thoughts.
Don't use them to set apart regular dialogue.

In all of those cases, you want double quotation marks like this:

"When in doubt, use double quotation marks," Wanda said. "First off, they're correct. But they're also cute."

Single quotation marks are used when you're quoting something but you're already in the middle of double quotes.

I can think of two situations where this fits:
  • A quote within a quote (when your character is speaking and quotes someone else).
  • A reference in a quote (your character is speaking and referring to a work that needs quote marks).
A quote within a quote:
"Mrs. Lambert is so strict," Tony said. "Today in class, she said, 'Turn in your homework on time or you'll be docked points.' I'm so sure."

(Can you tell I have a teenager?)

Did you see how the quote marks worked? Tony gets double quotation marks around his words.

When he quotes Mrs. Lambert, we can't use double quotes again, because that would be confusing. (Sort of, "Wait. We're already in a quote. Are we ending it? Starting a new one? What?")

You can't stack up sets of double quotes and have it make any sense.

To differentiate between what Tony says and what he's quoting Mrs. Lambert as saying, set apart her words with single quote marks:


A Reference in a Quote
Let's say that Mrs. Lambert mentioned a short story that was part of the homework. Short story titles need quotation marks.

Because you alternate between double and single quotes, a title inside a quote would normally get single quote marks:

"Mrs. Lambert assigned a worksheet on 'A Rose for Emily,' which I still need to read," Tony said.

Let's use the original sentence. We used double quotes for Tony's words.

Then we added single quotes for Mrs. Lambert's words.

What do we do to the title of the story (which is inside her quote)?

(Here comes the part where I'm going out of control . . . so fun!)

If we're quoting Tony, who is quoting Mrs. Lambert, who is referring to the short story, we have to continue to alternate between double and single quotes.

Double for Tony, single for Mrs. Lambert, double for the title:

"Mrs. Lambert is so strict," Tony said. "Today in class, she said, 'Turn in your worksheet for "A Rose for Emily" on time, or you'll be docked points.' I'm so sure."

(Isn't that fun?)

Other Punctuation with Quote Marks
Commas and periods go inside quotation marks, even if you're using single quotes.

If we're closing with a single AND a double quote, we end up with a comma and then three marks dangling at the end:

"Turn in your worksheet on 'A Rose for Emily,'" Mrs. Lambert said.

That looks funky, but it's right.

Now let's get really confusing on you. Question marks and colons go outside the quote marks.

So if the dialogue we're using has a question inside and the title is at the end of that, you can't put the question mark inside the quote marks. That would make the title a question. (Which can happen, like Who Framed Roger Rabbit? as a full title, although it's a movie, so it's italicized and doesn't get quote marks, but that's another post.)

In this case, squeeze the quotation mark between the single quote mark and the double quotes, like so:

"Did you turn in your worksheet on 'A Rose for Emily'?" Mrs. Lambert asked.

Ooooooh! Idea!

Let's go crazy and make that a quote from Tony quoting Mrs. Lambert!

At the end of the sentence, we'd have to:
  • close the quotes on the short story title
  • add the question mark to punctuate Mrs. Lambert's question
  • close her quote
  • and finally close Tony's quote

It looks like this:
"Mrs. Lambert said, 'Did you turn in your worksheet on "A Rose for Emily"?'" Tony said.

I'm giggling with glee over here. I love this stuff.


Heffalump said...

My head! My HEAD!
Thank you for furthering my education Annette!

Summer said...

Ooooo! Thanks for this! I never knew.

Kristina P. said...

This is something I sometimes struggle with.

What about when you are saying a title of something, at the end of the sentence? So, the period isn't actually part of the title, but it grammatically should go inside it.

For instance, I just saw 'Twilight.' Does the period still go inside it?

Annette Lyon said...

I answered Kristina via e-mail, but in case others have the same question--YES, a period goes inside the quote marks.

Brittany Marie said...

Can I italacize "A Rose for Emily"? (Btw, I liked "A Rose for Emily.")

PS: I totally need a copy of your new grammar book.

LisAway said...

I had the same question as Kristina, as that's something that I don't get. So, really? In this sentence I would put the question mark here:

Did he really just say, "You're SUCH an idiot?"

Oh no, of course not. So I can do it:

Did he really just say, "You're SUCH an idiot!"?

And do you ALWAYS have to have the comma before you begin the parenthesis? I find that a little silly, too sometimes.

Carolyn V. said...

I'm gettin' that grammar book! Whoo hoo!

Oh man. I think everything was wrong in the sentence. I need that book! ;)

Anonymous said...

I was giggling with glee just reading this!

I have missed these WNW so much. Thank heavens that you're back!

Okay, weird question: (and maybe you can email me about it) At the conference you said to use ellipses sparingly; that there were better ways of using them. Can you give an example? Let's say that I wrote:

"Um...I don't think you should have poked that badger."

How would I get rid of those ellipses and still get that same feeling across?

(p.s. I'm terrified that I've used improper grammar all over this comment. Am I banned?) My word verifier is "trumort." I.E. "I would be truly mortified if I've messed up my grammar in front of Annette!"

Lara Neves said...

I get totally confused on the same point Lisa mentioned. I always end up doing it with the question mark outside of the quotes because it bugs me inside. But, if that's wrong I shall stop.

Randi said...

Yeah, I learned punctuation outside of the quotes, too. Unless it's part of the actual quote.

Hey, my head started spinning there in the middle of the quotes within the quotes. But I want you to know I stayed with you the whole time - AND I learned a couple of things.

Just SO said...

I had no idea about the punctuation marks inside the quotation marks. I hope I remember.

Lilly said...

I am dropping by via Alysons blog. I need these lessons badly. I am an Aussie and we follow the British spelling system but the lines are all getting hazy. That was really interesting. Um, clearly I break the rules...a lot! I am now following.

Kimberly Vanderhorst said...

I love how easy to understand your explanations are - brilliant as always!

Cajoh said...

I never knew about the alternating quotes when within quotes— pretty cool.

"Thank you," I said "for the 'punctuation' lesson."

TheOneTrueSue said...

I'm DEFINITELY buying this book. I feel so much smarter now.

Heather of the EO said...

I'm seriously (honestly) loving these posts. I'm pretty clueless, so I learn a lot from these posts. I'll be looking to get the book for help! :)

Rebecca Irvine said...

Great explanation. I vaguely remember a similar, but less effective, lesson on this in my business English class at BYU.

Heatherlyn said...

Pretty cool stuff. I like the examples.

Loralee and the gang... said...

"Thank you!" I always wondered (or maybe I once knew and forgot) about that rule.
Now I can sleep better at night.

Jo said...

Lookie there, you are a real grammar queen!

Dedee said...

I loved it! I'm a happy blurker to you, but a post like this will get me out every time!

Grammar makes me happy.

Chas Hathaway said...


I bet if I showed this to a friend, they would say something like, "I have to ask myself, "Is that why I'm thinking, 'Wow, can I remember this while I'm writing?'?"."


- Chas


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