If I use a quotation that is already in quotation marks in my source, how many quotation marks should I use?

As the MLA Handbook notes, “When your quotation consists entirely of material enclosed by quotation marks in the source work, usually one pair of double quotation marks is sufficient, provided that the introductory wording makes clear the special character of the quoted material” (6.50).

The following provides an example:

In William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Malvolio is tricked by the letter he believes to be from Olivia, which promises to elevate him in nobility. As the letter’s best-known passage claims, “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ’em” (2.5.135–37).

Work Cited

Shakespeare, William. Twelfth Night. Edited by Roger Warren and Stanley Wells, Oxford UP, 1995.

In the edition the quotation comes from, the passage beginning “Some are born great” appears in quotation marks. But the context given by the surrounding prose in the example above makes it clear that the quotation comes from the letter Malvolio is reading. So only one set of quotation marks is needed.

The same principle applies to quoted dialogue in novels. The following provides two examples of quoted dialogue. In the first example, the quoted dialogue does not require two sets of quotation marks. But in the second, the quoted dialogue does require two sets of quotation marks, because of the intervening portions that do not appear in quotation marks in the original:

Lieutenant Randall’s flatly stated accusation, “You lied to me,” is met with Marlowe’s breezy response: “It was a pleasure” (Chandler 102).

Lieutenant Randall refuses to be provoked by Marlowe: “‘You lied to me.’ ‘It was a pleasure.’ He was silent a moment, as if deciding something. ‘We’ll let that pass,’ he said” (Chandler 102).

Work Cited

Chandler, Raymond. Farewell, My Lovely. 1940. Vintage Books, 1992.

See our related post for more on quotations nested within other quotations.

Work Cited

MLA Handbook. 9th ed., Modern Language Association of America, 2021.