A Word, Please

Dealing with apostrophes, single quotation marks and regular quotation marks

Picture this: A music reviewer makes a reference to the song “Space Truckin'” by Deep Purple. You want to quote him on it. Specifically, you want to quote a sentence in which the writer just happened to put the song title at the end. Which of the following punctuation options would you choose?

Jones wrote, “I used to love the song ‘Space Truckin’.'”

Jones wrote, “I used to love the song ‘Space Truckin.””

Jones wrote, “I used to love the song ‘Space Truckin.'”

I know what you’re thinking: You’d recast the sentence. That’s just plain smart. The alternative, clearly, can induce a brain hemorrhage. But the point of this grammar column isn’t “Meh. Just say it another way.” Our goal is to understand the rules and how to apply them in the toughest situations. But even by our standards at Brain Hemorrhages ‘R’ Us, this situation is tough.

To know how to punctuate that sentence, you need to understand apostrophes, single quotation marks, regular quotation marks, the rules for where to put a period relative to quotation marks, and the rules for where to put a period relative to an apostrophe.

Let’s start with the easy part. When an apostrophe represents a dropped letter, it works like that letter. It stays with the word: truckin’. The apostrophe is no more separable from the word than the letter G: trucking. The period comes after the G, so it’s the same for the apostrophe when you drop the G: truckin’.

If that apostrophe were a single quotation mark, the period would come before it. That’s the rule in American English: the period or comma always comes before the closing double or single quotation mark: He used the word “stewardess.” She said, “When you call me ‘stewardess,’ it sounds old-fashioned.”

Single quote marks, of course, go inside regular quote marks. You use them when you’re quoting someone who himself is saying something that goes in quotes. Bob said, “I watch a lot of ‘Family Guy’ reruns.”

Single quotation marks are not half-strength quotation marks. You don’t use them when you sort of want to call attention to a word but not too much attention. That’s a regular quotation mark’s job: Brett’s “brilliance” is greatly overstated.

The only weird rule involving single quote marks is that many news media use them in place of regular quotation marks in headlines. It’s a visual thing, rooted in the idea that headlines should be as uncluttered as possible.

You might be wondering: Do the titles of TV shows, movies and songs go in quotation marks? That’s not a right-or-wrong thing. That’s an editing style thing. You can put them in italics if you like. But if you prefer to mimic the pros, note that Chicago style puts TV show titles and movie titles in italics, while song titles go in quotation marks. The Associated Press Stylebook puts all these in quotation marks.

In our Deep Purple example, our song title is in quotation marks. That’s how we ended up with such a hard-to-punctuate sentence, with an apostrophe, a single closing quotation mark and a double closing quotation mark all at the end.

Now that you’re refreshed on the rules necessary to puzzle this out, back to our brain hemorrhage.

The apostrophe in truckin’ is followed by the period because the apostrophe is part of the word. The single quotation mark comes after the period because that’s the rule in American English. The double quote mark comes next, because double quotation marks enclose single quotation marks. Add those up and you get: apostrophe, period, single quotation mark, double quotation mark. In our choices above, the first example was the right one.

Jones wrote, “I used to love the song ‘Space Truckin’.'”

I hope that was worth the brain injury.

June Casagrande is the author of “The Best Punctuation Book, Period.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.