Punctuation Series: Quote Marks
Punctuation is the set of marks that give depth, pace and force to our words. Much like the dynamics in written music, punctuation gives the reader the extra information they need to secure the tone of the text and deepen their understanding. The Punctuation series is a collection of articles detailing the use of particular punctuation types, to help you use these precision tools to their fullest advantage.
Welcome to the last article in the Punctuation Series! You might think I've saved the easiest to the end—after all, I've covered apostrophes and Oxford commas, and frankly what's going to be more brutal and controversial than that? And while I admit that quote marks are definitely on the safer end of the punctuation conversational spectrum, they're not without their traps and pitfalls. So, are you ready? Feeling confident? Puffed up with the security of knowing how to use quote marks?
Walk with me.
Quote marks are used to identify text that is not the author's original words. Sometimes this is a literal transcription of text or speech; sometimes it's a term the author may not have ordinarily used; sometimes it's a term the author chooses to distance from themselves.
While I'll be discussing the quote marks I'm most familiar with—those used in English—I would like to touch upon some of the range of symbols used to set aside quoted text.
Several languages use symbols that look like wee commas or apostrophes for their quote marks: for example, they appear in most English dialects, some European and Middle Eastern languages, and some Asian languages. They come in pairs of doubles: “ and ”, and singles: ‘ and ’. The pair encloses the quoted text, and, as you can see, they hang high, in line with the top level of the text.
In many European languages, these symbols are used slightly differently. In Estonian, Icelandic, Hungarian, and several others, the symbols look similar but are placed differently:
- Estonian and Icelandic: „blah blah blah“
- Hungarian: „blah blah blah”
In several other languages, especially the Romance languages, the symbols used to set aside quoted text are usually guillemets, which look like pairs of nested angle brackets: « and ». A thorough list of the languages that make use of these quote marks is available on Wikipedia, and jolly interesting it is too.
Several Asian languages use partial square brackets, which look like this: ｢ and ｣. When the text runs from top to bottom, there are rotated versions: ﹁ and ﹂. These sometimes get called CJK quote marks, as they predominantly appear in Chinese, Japanese and Korean languages.
As I mentioned above, in this article I'll focus on what I'm familiar with: the use of quote marks in English.
Single quote marks
I'll make this easy for you: single quote marks, also known as inverted commas, are the ones that look like pairs of apostrophes, floating around a bit of quoted text, ‘like this’. They're dainty and simple, and are the go-to punctuation of choice for quoting text or speech directly if you're in Great Britain, and ever style guide for Australian text I've worked with has also defaulted to them. Sometimes they're just called single quotes.
Double quote marks—I know, you've already figured this out, but let's play along for the sake of thoroughness, shall we?—look like doubled-up single quote marks. Sometimes referred to as "sixty-six-and-ninety-nines", and sometimes just as double quotes, they also float around the quoted text “like this”.
Which to use and when?
Well, okay. See, now it gets tricky. When determining whether to use quote marks, and which to use, there are some things to consider:
- Context: Where is this quote coming from? What sort of context is it being used in?
- Content: What is the quote saying? Is it someone's speech? Is it a word you're sorta-kinda acquainted with?
Context: who are you writing for?
Perhaps the biggest determiner in the single versus double quote discussion (for some reason, people rarely get heated enough about quote marks to call it an argument) is who you are writing for. As a general rule, writing for the US or Canadian audience requires double quotes; writing for the British, New Zealand or Australian audience requires single quotes. Mostly. (I admit I'm a sucker for a pretty pair of double quotes, and I'm writing from an Australian context. Double quote marks just seem so fancy.)
Of course, these can vary: make sure you check the style guide you're working under. If the university, organisation, department or business you're editing/writing for suggests something different, then go with it!
Context: quotes within quotes
Wanna make things even more fiddly? Try nesting a quote within another quote.
‘What did Samantha say?’ asked Tyson.
‘She said “I would rather choke!” and that I could “shove it”.’ Answered Matilda, indignantly.
You can see that Tyson's comments are in single quotes: if you like, you can consider them quoted to you as a reader. Matilda's response is also surrounded in single quotes, because her response is also quoted to you: however, she's quoting Samantha's comments within her response. To avoid confusion about who's saying what, Samantha's quote is surrounded by double quotes: once you reach that second set of closing double quotes, you know you're back to Matilda's own speech.
This example is perfect for the British/Australian/New Zealand market: the initial quote marks used are single quotes. But what if I was writing for the US/Canadian‐oh, you're ahead of me. Yes, you'd swap them so the double quotes came first. I see you've thought about this. No, I'm not offended. Everything's fine.
Content: Quote or not?
Now, the next thing to think about while you're agonising about which quote mark to use is whether the content is, in fact, actually, to be precise, an actual quote.
Use quote marks to indicate that the text between them is:
- A literal transcription of someone's spoken or written words.
- The title of something that is usually part of a bigger group of those somethings: one poem from a book, one track from an album, one article from a newspaper, that sort of thing. (Generally, you italicise the name of the newspaper, album or book, rather than use quote marks.)
- To indicate a nickname within the actual name:
Leonard ‘Ivy Piddles’ McFee
- As a metalanguage distinction to refer to a thing's name or word, rather than the thing itself.
That last point deserves a bit more explanation: especially when setting up a definition or explanation at the start of a phrase, use quote marks to clarify a label.
In this essay, ‘Cardinals’ refers exclusively to the popular sporting team, not the rank within the Catholic Church.
‘Athletes’ were participants who walked, ran, or rode more than 158 km each week, on average.
It's a popular humorous device, too:
I took it well. And by ‘took it well’ I mean ‘shrieked and dropped a plate on my foot’.
Indicators of unusual use
Quote marks can be used to set some text aside to indicate that it's a word that kinda works in this context, but it's not the way you'd normally see this word used.
We're learning that the frogs ‘talk’ to predatory birds with their songs.
In this way, the quotes indicate that the text is a metaphor, a gloss or a euphemism, that conveys the meaning adequately, if imprecisely. This can also be used to indicate that the author is using colloquialisms, slang or jargon they're unfamiliar with:
The skate parks around the lake are alleged to be rather ‘bogus’, but the parks near the mall are ‘well sick’, my sources insist.
Which can be adorable or patronising.
Scare quotes and air quotes
Now here's an area you need to proceed carefully. Hoo boy. Scare quotes are quote marks used to create distance and skepticism between the writer and the concept. You see it a lot in journalism, especially political journalism.
The opposition's ‘proposal’ was accepted by the department today.
Punctuation—like any aspect of language use‐can carry subtle nuance and inflection that pack a whack of meaning. Scare quotes do a whole lot. They can imply skepticism, disdain, and disagreement without articulating any reasons. When you see them used, substitute the phrase 'so-called' and you'll see what I mean.
Now, scare quotes absolutely have their place. For example, irony quotes are essentially scare quotes but with sour cream and chives:
My aunt brought some of her ‘art’ for our new place.
And they can provide distance from a value-loaded term:
Through these activities, the parents hoped their children would behave ‘normally’.
But even these examples demand that the writer proceed very carefully. Even in these playful and value-distancing contexts, they can carry an insinuation or a sneer. So use them carefully. Nobody wants to be a sneerer.
On final punctuation
When you end a sentence with text in quote marks, you may get to the end and realise you're not entirely sure where to put the final full stop, question mark or exclamation mark. For details about this, I direct you to my article on Full Stops.
Quote marks are, like all punctuation, tools to help refine language. They indicate changes in voices, voices that aren't the author's own, and outsider voices that the author may use or challenge. Use them abundantly, but use them appropriately.