November 17, 2006

Quintuple quote embedding

More on recursive quotation embedding: David J. Swift of Jackson, Wyoming, writes to point out a quintuply embedded quote in a story by Garrison Keillor. The sentence ends in a wonderful (and perfectly grammatical) string of seven successive punctuation marks (! ” ’ ” ? ’ ”). Here's the whole paragraph:

“TEEN LEADERS VOW ANTI-ROCK DRIVE, AIM SMUT BAN IN AREA,” the Gazette reported the following morning. “Longtime youth worker Diane Goodrich enjoys having as much fun as the next person [the story went on], but Monday night, watching a local rock band rip into a live chicken with their teeth at the 4-H Poultry Show dance, she decided it was time to call ‘foul.’ Evidently, more than a few people agree with her. Last night, at a meeting in the high-school auditorium attended on a word-of-mouth basis by literally dozen of parents, not to mention civic leaders and youth advisers, she spoke for the conscience of the community when she said, ‘Have we become so tolerant of deviant behavior, so sympathetic toward the sick in our society, that, in the words of Bertram Follette, “we have lost the capacity to say, ‘this is not “far out.” You have simply gone too far. Now we say “No!” ’ ”?’ ”

Keillor may have constructed this with malice aforethought, but it's really quite natural-sounding, and basically understandable.

[Update: In the first version of this post the paragraph above was presented with a mistake: the left quotation mark before Have we become was double. The first version of this update wrongly said the mistake was there in the original book. Not so. Rechecking the paragraph from a scan provided by David Swift reveals that the book was correct, and has the quote marks exactly as above. Thanks to Sridhar Ramesh in Berkeley for the first email pointing out that the quotes didn't match up before (because the left ones didn't alternate in type). This forced me to do a recount and get it right. Gratitude and apologies as necessary.]

A number of people have written to bring to my attention a story that doesn't quite amount to natural use of the language. It's called "Menelaiad", and it appears in John Barth's Lost in the Funhouse, which goes into seven nestings of quotation marks. As Jeff Binder explains in an email:

It starts out with a frame-tale, in which the main character is telling a story to some of his friends, but the story he tells turns out to be another frame tale, and so forth, until we get monstrosities such as this:

“ ‘ “ ‘ “ ‘Why?’ I repeated, ” I repeated, ’ I repeated, ” I repeated, ’ I repeated, ” I repeat.

This story is obviously very self-conscious about what it's doing, so I don't know if you would consider this use to be "in the wild," but it does show recursion taken to an extreme.

It does indeed look deliberate and artificial to me --- a literary experiment, to be classed with experiments like Italo Calvino's If on a Winter's Night a Traveler rather than an ordinary piece of literature; and that lessens its interest a bit. But it must technically be regarded as entirely grammatical, given the assumption that written English allows recursive use of quotation marks to arbitrary depth, and the rule that you alternate quotation-mark types.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at November 17, 2006 11:49 PM