Quotation marks.

Forks and knives and little dishes

by Annie Wei-Yu Kan

Many people find quotation marks troubling. Most people do, in fact. If you meet someone who doesn’t find quotation marks troubling, that person is probably using them wrong.

People who are untroubled by quotation marks tend to be very free-spirited in their usage. This is nice if you think of quotation marks as, oh, I don’t know, like getting multiple piercings for your text. But that’s not what they are for. Not normally.

Consider an example such as this:

My friend John called to say he was having a ‘tapas-style’ pot luck, which he called a “tap luck”. ‘Bring whatever you want,’ he said, ‘as long as it’s in its own dish and can be served in small bits’.

A nice idea for a pot luck, but dodgy punctuation.

There are a few issues with quotation marks. One is whether to use single or double quotes. Another is whether to put punctuation inside or outside the quotation marks. Another is just what you do and don’t put in them.

Since you can’t hear them, it’s hardly surprising that people make a mess of them.

There are two general styles of use for quotation marks: the American style and the British style. One is not superior to the other. The difference is like the difference between the American and British styles of holding silverware.

Please tell me you know the difference between the American and British styles of holding silverware.

Oh, for heaven’s sake. Do try to pretend to be worldly on occasion, won’t you? It’s this:

In Britain, you always hold the fork in the left hand, always always always, and you hold it with the tines pointing downward, so that it spears well but does not scoop.

In America, you use the right hand for the action, whether it’s cutting or spearing or scooping. So you hold the food steady with the fork in the left hand while you cut with the right, and then you switch the fork to the right hand, and you point the tines down or up depending on whether you want to spear or scoop. I really do hope you know that if you live in America. Or Canada.

Now, with quotation marks, it’s this:

The British style uses single quotation marks ‘like this’ and, unless the punctuation actually belongs with the quotation, puts the punctuation at the end outside the quotes. For quotations inside quotations, it uses double quotes.

This is the British style’, he said. ‘Now you can’t say, “I didn’t know!”’

The American style uses double quotation marks “like this” and always puts commas and periods inside them regardless of whether they belong with the quote or not. Other punctuation, such as question marks, exclamation marks, colons, and semicolons, only goes inside the quotation marks at the end if it belongs with the quotation. For quotations inside quotations, it uses single quotes.

This is the American style,” she replied. “Now you can’t ask, ‘What’s the difference?’”

There are minor local variations, but, really, that’s how it goes. Here are some metaphors to make this stick in your mind:

The British go for smaller portions and don’t eat what’s not theirs: Single quotes, punctuation outside if it doesn’t belong to the quote.

The Americans like bigger portions and will eat it if it’s there: Double quotes, and final periods and commas inside always.

The important thing is just to pick one style and be consistent with it.

That just leaves the question of what you use quotation marks for.

You might think that would be obvious. They are quotation marks. You use them to indicate that you are quoting someone. Directly. They said exactly these words. Or you are attributing them hypothetically. Just as any food someone brought to a tap luck will be in their own little dish. Not yours. Not someone else’s. And if they didn’t bring it, it won’t be in their dish. If you make a recipe you got from them, you still serve it in your dish, not theirs.

The problem is twofold.

First, quotation marks make things stand out. That means they seem useful for emphasis. This is similar to the problem with capital letters, which have been explained in an unfortunately vulgar way, but go ahead and read if you have a strong stomach.

Second, sometimes you’re not quoting a specific person. You’re quoting people. “They.” If you say “It’s called a ‘tap luck,’” you don’t have to be saying that a specific person you’re quoting said that. You can just be indicating that it’s a term that some people use that isn’t so widely accepted that it can be presented as an ordinary everyone-uses-it term. You don’t even have to say who calls it that. You can just say “It’s called…” in the passive, or “People call it…” or “They call it…” in the active. You do remember what I told you about the passive, right?

The point is that sometimes what’s in the little dish was brought by someone, but you’re not sure who or you don’t want to say who.

The problem is that this makes quotation marks seem like just another way of making novel terms and important ideas stand out. I’m sure you’ve seen that sort of thing:

Do not” leave your “dirty dishes” lying around. This is a “kitchen,” not a “waste dump.” “Please” ‘clean up’ after yourself.

Imagine if someone served you a roast beef, but instead of simply putting it on a platter, they cut half of it into a lot of little pieces and served them in little dishes that they had borrowed from other people. You would say, “What’s your beef?”

The thing you need to remember is that if it’s in quotation marks, it’s not your beef. If you put it in quotes, you’re disowning it. You’re saying, “I got this from someone else.”

That’s fine if the people you’re serving it to don’t like it. You can say, “I’m just passing that on!”

But what if you want them to take it seriously or you want to take the credit for it? You’re still saying, “I’m just passing that on!”

Readers aren’t robots. That’s true. Most of the time they will understand if you’re just using quotes because the word is “new” or “exciting” or “important” or “you heard it somewhere.” They may even think that that’s a reasonable use.

Or they may think you don’t know how to use quotation marks.

You may look to them like a waiter at a fancy restaurant who has a hundred piercings in his head and face. Who is serving them their entrées in many small dishes that have logos of different restaurants on them.

And can’t decide how to hold his knife and fork.

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2 thoughts on “Quotation marks.

  1. Wilson says:

    My own personal quotation style is something of a hybrid between American and British, though it leans more American. (Being Canadian, this feels natural to me. 🙂 )

    I use double quotation marks for direct quotations: James said, “I recommend the beef.”

    Nested quotes alternate single and double: Geoff said, “Susan said, ‘Dave said, “I don’t eat beef.” ‘ “ (Also, as you can see, I’ll often put an extra space between adjacent quotation marks for readability, especially on the web. I wish text-rendering software would put a little room between quotation marks so that I didn’t have to. I really hate the look of this sort of thing: “‘”.)

    As to punctuation, I generally prefer the British style, although I do substitute a comma for a period when the quotation is followed by an attribution tag: “It beggars belief that you have no brief with this beef,” beefed The Beav. (Brits really don’t do that?)

    I use single quotation marks as scare quotes, or as I guess I could put it, ‘scare quotes’, to indicate a certain level of irony or sarcasm or incorrectness (an issue you didn’t address, Annie!).

    I never use quotes – single or double – for emphasis; if italicization (or failing that, bolding) isn’t available, I’ll resort to bracketing words with asterisks.

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