There must be a catch-phrase or soundbite to describe this scenario, but so far, I've been unsuccessful locating that term, and my efforts to answer this question have been flat as well. I added terms like "hearsay", "tertiary source", and "third party" in various combination to my Google query, but again, no love.

Here is a situational example to set the stage for my quesiton and to hopefully remove any ambiguity from what I am asking:

Example 1:

Bob Johnson: Billy Ray Brown said he was walking home when all of a sudden he saw an angel in the sky!

Example 2:

Bob Johnson: And then Billy Ray said "Dude! I can't believe this!"

Example 3:

Bob Johnson: Bill Ray told me that his mother told him when he younger "Always be a good boy and honor the Lord."

The three examples are all slightly different, but they have one thing in common: to quote the speaker to the reader (without workarounds like summarizing and paraphrasing) requires quoting a third-party who you don't know if they said what the speaker is saying they said or not. Thus, for accuracy (and avoiding libel suits), it is important to know how to correctly quote third parties.


What my instinct leads me to feel is right in the third example (since it is the most complicated) is something like this:

"Bily Ray told me", said Johnson, "that his mother told him when he was yonger 'Always be a good boy and honor the Lord'."

But that's my guess. I've found lots of quides on quoting style, but haven't seemed to find a section that deals with what seems like a fairly obvious and common phenomenon one would have when interviewing somebody about what somebody else said.


  1. How do I quote a third-party/hearsay source?
  2. If it's not called third-party/hearsay source, what is the term I should Google for next time?

Any help is appreciated.

2 Answers 2


This is called an indirect (or secondhand) quote. Typically, the advice is to replace it with a primary quote if at all possible. But in an oral recollection like this, it might not be possible to recover the primary source. If possible, I'd suggest NOT placing the putative quotation in quotation marks, which are usually reserved for exact quotes that you can verify.

Johnson then quoted Billy Ray's mother as telling him to always be a good boy.

However, if you are directly and accurately quoting someone who is quoting someone else, it is generally permissible to put the secondary quote in internal quotes, with the implication that it is only as accurate as your source.

"My mama always said, 'Life is like a box of chocolates,'" quoted Forest.

Even here, however, it's worth noting the actual quote from the movie is "My mama always said life was like a box of chocolates..." which properly takes no internal quotes and is therefore not promised to be 100% accurate. With that in mind, it should also be noted that you shouldn't put quotes even around your primary source unless you are certifying the accuracy of your transcription. Quotation marks express a promise of fidelity to the source.

  • 1
    +1 Thanks! That is helpful and gives me some ideas on how to approach what I am doing. I want to see what other answers come in before marking one as correct. Feb 19, 2018 at 23:05
  • Also, "secondary source".
    – FraEnrico
    Feb 20, 2018 at 7:55
  • 1
    Thanks Chris. I went ahead and marked your answer as correct. Mar 6, 2018 at 12:25

The classic case of this is Conrad's Heart of Darkness, which is almost entirely in the dialogue of the narrator from the frame story.

"It arrested me, and he stood by civilly, holding a half-pint champagne bottle (medical comforts) with the candle stuck in it. To my question he said Mr. Kurtz had painted this—in this very station more than a year ago—while waiting for means to go to his trading-post. 'Tell me, pray,' said I, 'who is this Mr. Kurtz?'

"'The chief of the Inner Station,' he answered in a short tone, looking away. 'Much obliged,' I said, laughing. 'And you are the brickmaker of the Central Station. Everyone knows that.' He was silent for a while. 'He is a prodigy,' he said at last. 'He is an emissary of pity, and science, and progress, and devil knows what else. We want,' he began to declaim suddenly, 'for the guidance of the cause intrusted to us by Europe, so to speak, higher intelligence, wide sympathies, a singleness of purpose.' 'Who says that?' I asked. 'Lots of them,' he replied. 'Some even write that; and so he comes here, a special being, as you ought to know.' 'Why ought I to know?' I interrupted, really surprised. He paid no attention. 'Yes. To-day he is chief of the best station, next year he will be assistant-manager, two years more and . . . but I dare say you know what he will be in two years' time. You are of the new gang—the gang of virtue. The same people who sent him specially also recommended you. Oh, don't say no. I've my own eyes to trust.' Light dawned upon me. My dear aunt's influential acquaintances were producing an unexpected effect upon that young man. I nearly burst into a laugh. 'Do you read the Company's confidential correspondence?' I asked. He hadn't a word to say. It was great fun. 'When Mr. Kurtz,' I continued severely, 'is General Manager, you won't have the opportunity.'

Two things to note here. One is the alternation of double and single quotation marks. The other is that the paragraphing follows the outer dialogue rather than the inner, so that whole conversations in the inner story occur inside a single paragraph of the outer.

Heart of Darkness, by the way, was the inspiration for the film Apocalypse Now. You can find it on Project Gutenberg http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/526

  • Heart of Darkness is/was terrifying... Great quote. Thanks for reminding me of it, @markbaker Feb 20, 2018 at 13:59
  • +1 For these great examples. However, I've marked Chris' answer as correct because he provided the term, examples, and explanation. Mar 6, 2018 at 12:25

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.