“Ain’t Misbehavin’ ”: When Quotation Marks and Apostrophes Collide


In 1929, when the song “Ain’t Misbehavin’ ” became a big hit, composers Thomas “Fats” Waller and Harry Brooks probably weren’t too worried about that final apostrophe. Lyricist Andy Razaf may have cared, but he didn’t have to blog about it or promote the song on social media.

I worry about the apostrophe, and I would guess that I’m not the only editor or proofreader who would.

The Problem

The problem with the apostrophe at the end of the song title is that according to Chicago style—and most other styles—song titles are placed in quotation marks when they are mentioned in text.

And when an apostrophe appears next to a quotation mark, it can be hard to tell what’s going on.

This situation is similar to the more common one that occurs when a single quotation mark bumps up next to a double quotation mark. As this blog covered in a recent post, the apostrophe is the same character as the right single quotation mark. And that only adds to the confusion.

Let’s look at some examples.

In the following sentence, the apostrophe in “Ain’t” is clear, but can you identify the one at the end of the song title?

Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five recorded “Ain’t Misbehavin’” for Parlophone in 1929.

What about when the title is in single quotation marks, as in quoted dialogue? Can you sort out the apostrophe from the quotation marks in this example?

“Have you heard the song ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’’?”

Or maybe you’re working for a publisher in the UK or elsewhere who uses single quotation marks:

Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five recorded ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’’ for Parlophone in 1929.

In those last two examples, it looks a lot like there’s a double quotation mark after the title.

“Ain’t Misbehavin’,” Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five, Parlophone R. 462, 1929, label (Internet Archive).

The Solution

Attentive readers will have guessed how to solve the problem from the title and first paragraph of this post. It’s a simple matter of adding a space between the contiguous marks.*

For online environments like this one, CMOS recommends a regular nonbreaking space (see paragraph 6.11). In Unicode, this space is called the “no-break space” and has number 00A0. Many readers will know it by the common abbreviation “nbsp”—the name of its HTML character entity. The no-break space is readily available—you can insert it in Word or Google Docs using the Unicode number or the special characters menu—and it should show up anywhere, on any device, in any font.

MS Word, Special Characters menu, Nonbreaking Space

In Microsoft Word, a nonbreaking space can be inserted via Insert > Symbol > Special Characters. Or choose the Symbols tab and enter the Unicode number (00A0).

In print, where space is at a premium, a thin space (Unicode 2009) or a hair space (Unicode 200A) may be preferred instead. To get the equivalent of a thin space online—and to ensure that the space doesn’t break at the end of a line—you can use a “narrow no-break space” (Unicode 202F).†

You need to use a nonbreaking space because if you simply hit the space bar, you risk stranding a closing quotation mark at the beginning of a new line (or an opening quotation mark at the end of a line)—a case of misbehaving punctuation you would be wise to prevent, even if it takes a little extra effort.‡

Here are the examples from the previous section, but with nonbreaking spaces added between the final apostrophe and the right (or closing) quotation mark that follows:

Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five recorded “Ain’t Misbehavin’ ” for Parlophone in 1929.


Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five recorded ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’ ’ for Parlophone in 1929.


“Have you heard the song ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’ ’?”

It’s all still a little complicated—but the results are significantly more legible, don’t you think?

“But what about periods and commas?”

In Chicago style, a period or a comma always comes before a closing quotation mark. And when that happens, the punctuation at the baseline supplies the needed space up above.

So, for example, in the middle of a sentence you would write “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” and at the end you would write “Ain’t Misbehavin’.”

Note that punctuation never precedes the apostrophe, because the apostrophe is part of the word—and that’s true in any style (see CMOS 6.118).

Compare the case of a single quotation mark next to a double quotation mark—for example, when a song title that doesn’t end in an apostrophe is mentioned in quoted dialogue and appears at the end of a sentence. In that case, a period would precede the single quotation mark, so in the following example (which also features two contiguous opening quotation marks), three nonbreaking spaces are needed:

“ ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’ ’ is great, but I prefer ‘Mood Indigo.’ ”

Here’s that same example, this time with the nonbreaking spaces highlighted in red:

 ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’ ’ is great, but I prefer ‘Mood Indigo.’ 

“But what if an apostrophe comes at the beginning of a word?”**

When an apostrophe comes at the beginning of the first word in a song title, it’s best to add a space between the opening quotation mark and the apostrophe, even though in most fonts the marks will be oriented in opposite directions (and therefore somewhat easier to distinguish):

“ ’Deed I Do,” composed in 1926 by Fred Rose, with lyrics by Walter Hirsch, has been recorded by many artists.

For an illustration of this scenario in CMOS, see the last three examples in paragraph 14.94.

* * *

Applying proper spacing around quotation marks and apostrophes is easy to do, and it will make your text more legible. So the next time someone asks you if you know what to do when quotation marks and apostrophes bump into each other, you’ll have an answer for them: “ ’Deed I do.” ?

* An exception: in a monospaced font, each character takes up the same amount of space, so a single quotation mark or apostrophe next to a double quotation mark will be visually distinct, and you won’t need to add a space between the two marks (e.g., “Ain’t Misbehavin’”).

† For technical details on all of this, including lists of breaking and nonbreaking spaces, consult the latest version of the “Unicode Line Breaking Algorithm.” Note that the rules in that report may be implemented in different ways depending on the application. For example, in MS Word and Google Docs, thin and hair spaces act as nonbreaking spaces—even though they are listed as breaking spaces in the report.

‡ Not using any space between an apostrophe and a quotation mark, or between a single and a double quotation mark, has the advantage of never stranding a mark—which is probably why this approach seems to be so popular. But for the sake of your readers, it’s best to add a nonbreaking space.

** “But can I start a sentence with ‘But’?” For an answer to that question and many others, see But Can I Start a Sentence with “But”? Advice from the Chicago Style Q&A, available from The Chicago Manual of Style Bookstore.

Top image: Gramophone, by R. Halfpaap, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Editor’s Corner posts at Shop Talk reflect the opinions of its authors and not necessarily those of The Chicago Manual of Style or the University of Chicago Press.

Russell Harper~ ~ ~

Russell Harper (@cpyeditor) is editor of The Chicago Manual of Style Online Q&A and was the principal reviser of the last two editions of The Chicago Manual of Style. He also contributed to the revisions of the last two editions of Kate L. Turabian’s A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations.


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