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This is something I've always been a little bit unclear about. When writing dialogue where a person is quoting someone else, and that quote is at the end of a sentence, I'm not quite sure how the punctuation works. Here's a specific example from what I'm working on:

a) "The victims are showing what the doctors described as 'adverse symptoms.'"

b) "The victims are showing what the doctors described as 'adverse symptoms'."

Does the single closing quote go before or after the ending punctuation? Or does it actually matter?

  • All other preferences aside, the small gap between the sets of end quotes provided by the full stop looks much better and makes the sentence easier to read, I think. – Margana Aug 26 '15 at 23:15
  • That's what I've always thought too. I just wasn't sure if it was correct. – user135488 Aug 26 '15 at 23:17
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This may be a case in which the most common American English style and the most common British English style diverge. In U.S. style, it is quite common to place the end punctuation (the period) within both sets of close quotation marks:

"The victims are showing what the doctors described as 'adverse symptoms.'"

This comports with the general punctuation style recommendations in The Chicago Manual of Style, fifteenth edition (2003), although Chicago does a very poor job of illustrating how to handle a simple .'" situation, preferring instead (at 11.33 Quotations and "quotes within quotes") to use for illustration an example that involves three levels of quotation marks—but an exclamation point as end punctuation. As the authors of Chicago are perfectly well aware, exclamation points and question marks do not follow the same style rules as periods when used as end punctuation in connection with quotation marks in a situation where a sentence ends with a close quotation mark.

Meanwhile, the more common style in UK English, I believe, is to complete the phrase punctuation (the first close quotation mark) before introducing the end punctuation (the period) and the second close quotation mark for the whole-sentence quotation. The only difference in common UK style from the way you illustrate this approach in example (b) of your question is that in UK style the primary level of quotation normally takes single quotation marks and the secondary (internal) level of quotation normally takes double quotation marks. Thus:

'The victims are showing what the doctors described as "adverse symptoms".'

To me, the predominant UK style is significantly more sensible than the predominant U.S. style because it treats the idea within the internal quotation marks as a logical entity to be identified (with the quotation marks) before the writer moves on to closing the sentence as a whole. Any move in the predominant U.S. style toward the main UK style on this point, however, is likely to be slow in coming, owing to the powerful inertial resistance of the established style preference.

  • Hmm okay. If it's just a matter of US vs. UK English, it would probably be safe to do it either way (as long as I stay consistent, of course). I tend to prefer the UK method because, like you said, it treats the quoted quote as its own entity. – user135488 Aug 27 '15 at 3:29
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There is that very low chance that you are writing under the unusual circumstances that requires you to write in plain text, with no text markup or markdown. This advice would scantly apply if you are operating under those circumstances.

You should avoid having quotes within quotes, for technical writing.

The popular practice is to italicize the inner quoted text.

  • I heard him say, "The victims are showing what the doctors described as adverse symptoms."

Or bolding,

  • I heard him say, "The victims are showing what the doctors described as adverse symptoms."

Or both,

  • I heard him say, "The victims are showing what the doctors described as adverse symptoms."

Or underlining. Since the site's markdown engine does not handle underlined text, I had to do something else to denote start/end of underline.

  • I heard him say, "The victims are showing what the doctors described as [u]adverse symptoms[/u]."

This would work for a plain-text adherent:

  • I heard him say, "The victims are showing what the doctors described as -adverse symptoms-."

  • I heard him say, "The victims are showing what the doctors described as, <<adverse symptoms>>."

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