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Early on, we learn the general rule that quotation marks come in pairs and, usually later, we come upon the exception: an opening quotation mark that has no matching closing one.

MLA Handbook:

When a speaker’s words in dialogue extend to more than one paragraph, use an opening quotation mark at the beginning of each paragraph. Use a closing quotation mark, however, only at the end of the person’s speech, not at the end of every paragraph.

My question is the reverse: Are there cases where a closing quotation mark has no matching opening one?

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    Punctuation is a matter of style. If you want to, you can reverse the usual style, although this may limit you to self-publication, since 99% of publishing houses, newspapers etc will correct your orthography. Running counter to convention will also make the reader's task more difficult, which most writers try to avoid. In any case, my view is that most questions about punctuation on this site are off-topic as they can only be answered as opinion (there being no "right" answer on style). For further guidance, see How to Ask. :-) Jul 22, 2021 at 22:33
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    Are there cases where a closing quotation mark has no matching opening one? If there are, I have never seen one.
    – Greybeard
    Jul 22, 2021 at 22:53
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    Are you saying, then, that your question is a riddle to which you already know the answer? Jul 22, 2021 at 23:23
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    @DjinTonic you say "I'm new here", so you'd be unfamiliar with the usual process of users voting to close a question without offering any explanation via a comment. I remember what it was like starting here 5 years ago, so I make the effort to add a comment. I recommend you spend some time on our site to get a feel for what's accepted here. Questions about punctuation invite opinion, rather than objective fact supported by authoritative reference. The only "correct" answer would be based on a specific style manual (eg CMS, APA, MLA), but that would suggest lack of research by the OP. Jul 23, 2021 at 2:08
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    @DjinTonic "I honestly thought folks would enjoy thinking about this for a while first" – which means you're seriously misunderstanding the nature of EL&U. This is not a discussion forum or chat site, for posting interesting anomalies of the English language dressed up as questions. It's a Q&A site "for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts." That doesn't suit everyone, but there's an EL&U Chat Room for those who want to engage in anomalistic discussion. ;-) Jul 23, 2021 at 8:58

1 Answer 1

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I know of one. Here are some examples:

CHAPTER ELEVEN

Elizabeth McDowell." There was reluctance in Yao's voice as he spoke the name, as if it were a truth he did not wish to acknowledge.

Eliot Pattison, Beautiful Ghosts, p.206, hardcover ed. The first sentence in the chapter begins with a drop capital E and no opening quotation mark.

What's this?" Kleinman asked.

Ethan Canin, Carry Me Across the Water, p. 79, hardcover ed. This section starts with a drop capital W and no opening quotation mark (the book has no formal, numbered chapters).

     [Chapter] 27
The Yiddish Policemen's Union,' " says the pie man.

Michael Chabon, The Yiddish Policemen's Union, p. 230, hardcover ed. The chapter beings with a drop capital T and nested (!) opening quotation marks omitted.

The case of a drop cap with an opening quotation mark creates a tension in typesetting/formatting between what may be more pleasing to the eye and what may be more pleasing to the brain.

When the first word of a chapter or section opens with a large raised or dropped initial letter and the first words are a run in quotation, the opening quotation marks are often omitted.

Chicago Manual of Style, Quotation marks 13.38 (The 16th edition, 2010, p.633)
This appears to have moved in the 17th edition (CMOS 17, © 2017) to section 13.37, Decorative initials (“drop caps” and raised initials), but it’s not free.

There are those who believe leaving off the first quote mark is confusing to readers.

Indies Unlimited


Several years ago, after reading the first, long sentence at the start of a chapter, I was surprised to see a closing quotation mark. I hadn't realized a character was speaking because the sentence made perfect sense when read as narration. Looking back at the start of the sentence, I saw a drop cap with no opening quotation mark. Of course when I reread it, the sentence also made sense as spoken dialog. If this was the norm, why had I never noticed it?

Publishers are divided as to how they handle this case. My impression is that a slight majority choose to omit the quotation mark in their house style guide.  I don't know if some publishers, rather than adhering to a single style guide, change on some other basis, e.g. by imprint, series, or perhaps the decision of a book designer.

On the flip side, desktop publishers may have to jump through hoops if they want to keep the opening quotation mark with a drop cap:

How to fix a drop cap with an opening quote mark

Drop Caps and Quotation Marks: A Workaround

Coming Unstuck with Drop Caps

We may have an opinion on this esthetics vs. comprehensibility question, although writers never have to worry about this issue. As readers, however, we might encounter this "other" exception to the "quotation marks come in pairs" rule several times in a single novel without ever taking notice.

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  • This is no challenge to the skilled typesetter. Bringhurst shows several extremely tasteful and well-done examples of using opening quotes with versals, including as hanging punctuation to the left of the margin and kerned into the same space as the versal itself. See this answer and specifically this image for what I'm talking about. Of course, more extended investigation of his observations and recommendations would exceed the scope of comments here, as well as the space in the margin. :)
    – tchrist
    Jul 25, 2021 at 1:19
  • @tchrist Nice shoutout to Fermat!
    – DjinTonic
    Jul 25, 2021 at 14:10
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    While this obviously provides an objective answer to "Does this happen?" I don't think it should be taken as evidence that it is in any way desirable.
    – Andrew Leach
    Jul 27, 2021 at 13:54
  • @Andrew Leach If we are speaking about comprehension, I believe most everyone would agree. Regarding esthetics, however, we may fall into two camps. In any case it's not a choice that readers or writers make, and I intentionally avoided write and writing in the question.
    – DjinTonic
    Jul 27, 2021 at 14:26

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