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Nested Quotation Marks

Our standard usage rules for quotation marks drive me nuts. I want to replace them with simpler ones.

I sometimes get email from people saying “I have a question for you”, and sometimes they say “I think I found a problem with your punctuation”. Their English teachers felt, as mine did, that closing quotation marks should come last in a sentence. Note the positions of comma and period in my first sentence.

So they’d frame that sentence this way:

I sometimes get email from people saying “I have a question for you,” and sometimes they say “I think I found a problem with your punctuation.”  *

Note that the comma now comes before the quotation mark, and the final period is enclosed within the final quotation. That’s the standard way.

It gets more complicated if we enclose this thing within a larger statement and use parentheses or brackets or braces or other paired marks; should we write:

I sometimes get email from people addressing literary style questions (usually beginning with “I have a question for you”, or “I think I found a problem with your punctuation”).

Or:

I sometimes get email from people addressing literary style questions (usually beginning with “I have a question for you,” or “I think I found a problem with your punctuation.”)

Which is clearer? To me, the first example wins on clarity of expression. I can easily tell which marks refer to what.

The history of punctuation is against me in this, albeit without clear justification. Will Strunk and E.B. White, in their classic Elements of Style, say of quotations (emphasis mine):

“Typographical usage dictates that the comma be inside the marks, though logically it often seems not to belong there.” — Strunk & White (2000) p. 36

Seems like they’re kind of ambivalent about the standard rule’s value. When it comes to parentheses, another form of paired marks, Strunk and White take my view (emphasis mine):

“A sentence containing an expression in parentheses is punctuated outside the last mark of parenthesis exactly as if the parenthetical expression were absent. The expression within the marks is punctuated as if it stood by itself, except that the final stop is omitted unless it is a question mark or an exclamation point.” — Strunk & White (2000) p. 36

In that long sentence above, we run into a problem with the standard approach because we don’t know where to put the period at the end. Does it go inside the quotations? At the end of the larger sentence? Where does it go? Which rule is pre-eminent?

Toward logical quotation marks

I think paired punctuation marks, including quotation marks, should be nested.

I’m basically arguing that we should extend Strunk & White’s rule for parentheses to all paired marks. In essence, they suggest that we should consider paired marks as nested punctuation, literary matryoshka dolls that fit together without crossed boundaries.

If we punctuated the earlier sentence the way Strunk & White advocate doing, exactly as if the nested-punctuation expression were absent or removed, it would start like this:

I sometimes get email from people addressing literary style questions.

And expand to:

I sometimes get email from people addressing literary style questions (usually beginning with QUOTATION, or OTHER_QUOTATION).

Is it such a long, convoluted, stylistically-incorrect leap to expand it to this?

I sometimes get email from people addressing literary style questions (usually beginning with “I have a question for you”, or “I think I found a problem with your punctuation”).

It all makes sense. It all nests. Everyone can still understand. It’s easy to teach because there are no special cases to teach, no gotchas, no caveats scriptor.

This approach will be familiar to anyone who’s studied math, science, or coding. It’s hard to come up with an example of non-nested punctuation for these things because it wouldn’t make sense.

(x,y) = [sin(ø,) cos(ø])

$str = concatenate(“purple,” “red,” “green.”); // or perhaps
$dictionary[“pizza]” = “A delicious baked flatbread with piquant toppings;”

It just wouldn’t make sense. We’re teaching people to express concepts with nested punctuation in STEM classes; why are we contradicting it in English class just for historical consistency?

Doing it the non-nested way requires writers and readers to spend energy debating which rule supersedes the other, and sets up a distinction between quotation marks and other paired marks that has no logical value. It contradicts the usage of punctuation marks that’s taught in math, sciences, and coding.

On a deeper level, I think that illogical rules disproportionately burden people learning English as a second language. They are a small but significant social justice issue. They impose a typographical shibboleth on people whose schools weren’t great or whose home languages punctuate differently. These rules serve as filters that place invisible barriers in the path of language learners, and they force writers to use cognitive energy to figure out which rule to follow.

It’s work for no purpose.

So I don’t do it. When I’m writing for myself, you’ll mostly find that I just say “farewell”, or perhaps something less polite, to that rule. I’ll make quotations (like “this” and “that”) into self-contained entities that don’t interfere with the broader punctuation of the sentence.

Nested punctuation is a small thing. It’s not a huge deal. But I think it’s one way we can make our language more logical, easier to learn, and simpler to understand.

*: Some people also feel that a quotation mark always requires a mark to its left, so they’d write … from people saying, “I have a question for you,” … rather than omitting the comma after ‘saying’. I mostly omit it, feeling that it doesn’t add much value for clarifying the sentence’s meaning.

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2 thoughts on “Nested Quotation Marks

  1. This has only the barest connection to your point, but I discovered recently an old book which used single quotes for things that were being said, double quotes to mark something inside that quoted material which was itself being said, *triple* quotes if perchance something inside *that* was being said, and so on… it makes so much more sense than our double-then-single-then-out-of-luck system. Contrived example:
    Buffy responded, ‘I didn’t know that when Spike said ”Get over here before his countdown gets to ”’blast off!”’ or I’m toast!” he meant that literally.’

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