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In a book my daughter is reading, I found the following usage of the unfamiliar symbols:

But those words dont help. So I reach over, wipe away his tear with the side of my thumb, and say the only words I know will calm him: "'"Frog, you are looking quite green."'"
David sniffles. "'"But I always look green," said Frog. "I am a frog."'" I pause, pretending I don't remember what comes next, though I can do the entire book word for word, by heart.
"'"Today you look very green, even for a frog," said Toad.'" David looks at me.

What does "'" mean?

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It's very hard to read, but it looks like the speaker of this passage is quoting a book? Is that right? –  Jeremy Sep 21 '11 at 4:13
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Or search-and-replace function gone wrong? –  JeffSahol Sep 21 '11 at 4:18

3 Answers 3

There are three nested sets of quotation marks here. The speaker (David's mother, presumably) is quoting the book Frog and Toad by Arnold Lobel. In this book, either Toad or Frog is speaking. You get the outermost set of quotation marks (") because David's mother is speaking. The next set of quotation marks (') arises because David's mother is quoting from the book Frog and Toad. Finally, the inner set of quotation marks (") comes because, in the book, Toad (or Frog) himself is speaking. So:

" ' "Today you look very green, even for a frog," said Toad.' "

This starts with David quoting from the book, and Toad is speaking at the beginning of the quote, so you get three quotation marks. The innermost one ends halfway through, when Toad stops speaking. At the end of the sentence, David stops speaking and stops quoting the book at the same time, so you get two sets.

I have never seen three nested quotation marks before. They are used correctly, but are nevertheless very confusing.

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That really does not work without proper typesetting, especially with these brutal ASCII quotes. Could you please fix that, or if you don’t know how, permit me to do so? You need to manually introduce a thin space between adjacent quotes because the web ignores kerning rules associated with a font. –  tchrist Aug 20 '12 at 2:48
    
@tchrist: I stuck a thin space in. If you think it'd look better with a thinner space (and know how to make one) go ahead. –  Peter Shor Aug 20 '12 at 4:52
    
That looks much better, thanks. –  tchrist Aug 20 '12 at 11:59

The ' (called the single quote; this symbol is also sometimes an apostrophe, but not in this case) is just another quote, with the same function.

In math, you might write:

(3 + 5) + 2

But if you want to add more parenthesis that enclose those parenthesis, you usually use brackets instead, even though they have the same function as parentheses.

[(3 + 5) + 2] * 3

Here, single quotes (') mean the same thing as double quotes (") but they are used simply because putting double quotes inside double quotes would be confusing and ambiguous, and you wouldn't know where the characters started and stopped speaking!

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I believe the OP was asking about the three symbol sequence "'" ("-'-"), not just the single quote. –  Codie CodeMonkey Sep 21 '11 at 8:21

If I understand your question right, what’s happening here is nested quotation marks. In your daughter’s book, someone — perhaps David’s mother or father? — is speaking, so their speech is inside quotation marks. But inside what they’re saying, they’re quoting from another book — so that’s inside a second level of quotation marks. Compare an example like:

“Well,” said George, “I think Julian was saying ‘The robbers are in the basement,’ or something.”

Quite often, when this happens, the two levels are distinguished by using double quote marks ( and ) for the outside quote, and single quote marks ( and ) for the inside level. Also, sometimes, they’re used the other way round.

The Wikipedia article “Quotation marks” is helpful, especially the section “Usage”.

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