Coping with quotation marks

Quotation marks are so indispensable, they must have been around forever, right? Not so. In fact, says Nicholson Baker in his essay "The History of Punctuation," they are relative newcomers to the punctuation fold: "Even the good old comma continues to evolve: it was flipped upside down and turned into the quotation mark circa 1714 . . . " (The Size of Thoughts: Essay and Other Lumber, 1997).

Since then, quotation marks have themselves evolved. Today they do much more than set off quoted words, though that remains their chief duty. And as their uses have multiplied, so have their abuses. What follows is a brief rundown of both.

The uses . . .

"By necessity, by proclivity, and by delight, we all quote"—so said Ralph Waldo Emerson. Whether we quote to present words precisely, add colour or perspective, or simply defer to someone who said it better, we enclose the words we borrow in quotation marks (though if the quotation is more than four or five lines long, we normally use block format and no quotation marks). The marks ensure that we properly acknowledge another’s words instead of claiming them for ourselves.

Quotation marks serve other purposes too. They set off certain titles, usually those of minor or short works such as essays, short stories, chapters, articles, papers, short poems and songs. (Italics set off titles of longer, stand-alone works.)

  • Have you read Timothy Findley’s short story collection Dinner Along the Amazon? I particularly liked the story "Dreams."
  • Jane is the author of "Spuds Are Us," a fascinating article on the history of potato farming.

Quotation marks also enclose words, letters and numbers referred to as themselves, though according to most style guides, italics can do the same.

  • How could they possibly use the word "facilitate" nine times on one page?
  • Delete the "s" and insert a "c."

As well, quotation marks set off newly coined or technical words that the reader will not likely know.

  • One of her tasks is to prepare "complans," or detailed communication plans, for her corporate clients.
  • One of the easiest and most effective techniques for breaking boards is the "hammer kick," a straight downward kick in which the heel is the breaking tool.

Finally, quotation marks may set off words that carry an ironic or colloquial meaning.

  • The "sophisticated" party guests, dressed mostly in low-slung, baggy jeans, sweaty tank tops and black knit skullcaps, spent hours "dissing" their teachers and fellow classmates.

Not all style guides favour this use. Some do, including The Canadian Style (2nd ed., 1997) and Editing Canadian English (2nd ed., 2000). The Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed., 2010) allows so-called scare quotes but warns against overusing them. Others guides, such as Joanne Buckley’s Checkmate (2nd ed., 2008), prohibit this colourful use of quotation marks. Buckley is particularly adamant (if not a tad dour): "Never use quotation marks to distance yourself from an expression or to call attention to slang."

Regardless of where you stand on this use, it’s worth asking whether the slang you’re considering is stylistically appropriate in the first place, and whether the irony you intend might come through as clearly without the quotation marks.

. . . And the abuses

Looking around, you might conclude that placing quotation marks around special or selected words was the latest linguistic craze. Unaccountable quotation marks are everywhere—or "everywhere," as some would have it. In fact, there’s an entire website devoted to skewering specious quotation marks. Appropriately called the "Gallery of ’Misused’ Quotation Marks," it exhibits scores of real-life examples submitted by readers:

  • I was in a grocery store in my neighbourhood and I saw a cylinder shaped food package called: "real" bacon bits.
  • Sign at a newly remodeled grocery store: If you need help finding something, one of our "friendly" associates will be happy to help you.
  • Sign in restaurant in Jacksboro, TN, lists the vegetables of the day: corn, fried potatoes, "peas" and green beans.

It’s easy to see why these quotation marks are misleading, if not downright off-putting. (Who, after all, would be tempted by "peas"?) Clearly, there are folks out there who subscribe to the "punctuation as decoration" theory, seeing quotation marks as accessories to dress up plain words and phrases, lending them a flourish or flair they otherwise lack. But like too many bows or bangles, useless quotation marks add nothing but clutter.

Doubles versus singles

There is no mystery behind double and single quotation marks, and no numerical formula either, despite the assertions of those who use single quotation marks to enclose single words and doubles for anything longer. The real rule is simple: use double quotation marks in all cases, except to set off words already inside quotation marks.

  • "It was late and I was very tired, but I think he said, ‘Will you carry me?’ not ‘Will you marry me?’ " Pamela said dejectedly.

This is the American style, which with very few exceptions prevails in Canada. The British style is generally the reverse, with single quotation marks the norm and doubles reserved for material already within singles.

With other punctuation marks

The disparity between British and American quoting styles also leads many to fret over what to do with other punctuation in relation to closing quotation marks. Again, in Canada the American style predominates: periods and commas go inside closing quotation marks; all other marks go inside if they belong with the quoted material, outside if they don’t. Colons and semicolons deserve a special mention. If they occur at the end of quoted material, it is conventional to drop them. As a result, they rarely fall inside closing quotation marks. You will see examples of the American quoting style throughout this article.

The British style commonly treats periods and commas like other punctuation marks: if they’re part of what’s quoted, they go inside the closing quotation marks (remember, with British style it’s a single mark); if they’re not, they go outside. However, the British style makes an exception for any punctuation that divides a sentence of quoted speech. Such punctuation (usually a comma) always goes inside.

  • ‘My plan,’ he said, ‘is to be the first person to climb Mount Everest with a family pet.’

Confusing? You bet. To complicate things further, even the American style recommends adopting the British style in cases when punctuation placement is critical—for instance, in legal writing or when presenting information that must clearly include or exclude the punctuation.

  • After entering your password, type "user 3485jk", after which you will be prompted to enter your access code.

Despair not. If you write in Canada for non-legal and non-technical audiences, just follow the American style. It’s the one that virtually all Canadian publishers and editors use.

There’s no question—quoting is a practice that enriches the writer as well as the reader. As Ian Thornley, singer, guitarist and lyricist of the rock band Big Wreck, admitted, "our lives are defined by what we steal" ("Defined by What We Steal," on the album The Pleasure and the Greed, 2001). And that’s fine, as long as we admit to our theft with quotation marks.

Related quiz

Test yourself—Coping with quotation marks

Copyright notice for Peck’s English Pointers

© His Majesty the King in Right of Canada, represented by the Minister of Public Services and Procurement
A tool made available online by the Translation Bureau, Public Services and Procurement Canada

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