Mechanics: Nested Quotes

Let’s say you’re writing dialogue. And in that dialogue, someone quotes verbatim what someone else said. How do you show that, mechanically?

“We were just sitting around talking, and all of a sudden Josh says, ‘Amy told me she’s leaving me.’ Just like that. No lead-in or anything. Just dropped the bomb on us.”

(I also used the “historical present” in that example. It’s how we talk. Nothing wrong with it in fiction or casual writing, at all.)

See those single quotation marks enclosing Josh’s words? That’s how we know they’re his actual, verbatim speech, related to us by the first speaker (whose name we don’t know).

I see this a lot, also, when people are using scare quotes to let us know that a word or words don’t mean precisely what they normally mean. It’s a problem on a couple of levels. First, those scare quotes need to be examined closely; often there’s a better way to impart the information, one that eliminates the need for them in the first place. Second, if they must be used, and they’re within quoted dialogue, they need to be single quotes. Nested quotes are nested quotes, whether they’re scary ones or reported verbatim speech.

NB: I’m an AmE speaker and editor, and I use CMoS as my style guide. Blog posts reflect this reality.

3 thoughts on “Mechanics: Nested Quotes

  1. What’s your opinion on how best to handle the commas in the case where the nested quote isn’t placed at the end of its sentence? For instance: “Josh walked up to me and said, ‘Hello’ and then just walked away.”

    That’s a particularly contrived example that would be (much) better written using reported speech, but it’s something I come across every now and then. I rarely have the luxury of the original author to talk to either, as I work on translated Japanese media.

    I suspect that there’s no particular rule for it myself (though I’ve seen discussion here: http://english.stackexchange.com/q/127852), but I’m curious to hear your thoughts on it.

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    1. Hello, Connor, and thanks for the interesting comment/question.

      Indeed that one is “particularly contrived,” and to that end it’s hideous. (You suspect that already, I’m sure.) My first inclination as a fiction/copy editor is to recast to avoid the issue, without losing clarity or changing the meaning. However, your wording indicates that you don’t have that option. Therefore: I would treat “Hello” as an utterance. I’d delete the preceding comma, keep the single quotes (for the nesting), and insert a comma before the closing single quotation mark. It gets messy working with dialogue, sometimes.

      Here’s a wonderful post by my colleague James Harbeck, a linguist and editor. It helps clarify what I mean by “utterance.” In your example, John’s “Hello” is more of an action (a greeting, like a hand-wave) than speech (“Hello, Mary. You take your coffee black, right?”). The linked post goes into that a bit deeper.

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      1. That post is exactly what I’ve been looking for—and James’s blog is definitely going on my regular reading list.

        Very enlightening! Thanks for the quick response.

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