Wednesday 16 November 2016

Sex and the Single Quotation Mark

Yes, okay, single quotation marks don’t actually have sex as far as we know, but they certainly do seem to be proliferating these days.

Portrait of Ambassador Admiral Abdelkader Perez 1737
“The king himself called my beard ‘enviably luxuriant,’ ” boasted the ambassador.

Keeping Singles in Their Place

The Chicago Manual of Style says there’s no call to use single quotation marks except within existing double quotation marks.

  • “The king himself called my beard ‘enviably luxuriant,’ ” boasted the ambassador.

Well, there are a couple of other reasons, namely if you’re writing something technical about linguistics or philosophy—but let’s face it, you’re probably not. Also, if you’re in the UK (or you’re in America but like being kind of pretentious), then you might permissibly use single quotation marks where the rest of us use doubles. All other uses, according to the Chicago Manual, are incorrect.

Meet the Press

But journalists operate out of a different rule book—literally: The Associated Press Stylebook (usually referred to as AP style) uses single quotation marks in headlines to save space.

  • ‘I Am Not a Vampire’ Says Mayor

Since headlines don’t include italics, words that would normally be italicized, like movie titles, are put in quotation marks instead.

  • Local Citizens Confused, Nauseated After Watching ‘Un Chien Andalou’

Twitter Wreaks Havoc on Punctuation

Single quotation marks tend to be the go-to in any medium where space is at a premium, such as Twitter (although that site is a bit of a punctuation free-for-all).

Merriam-Webster uses single quotation marks on Twitter as a replacement for italics, which aren’t available for the site. Thus you get tweets like the one below, where the word-as-word is in single quotation marks, and its gloss, or meaning, is in double quotation marks.

Merriam-Webster tweet
Merriam-Webster tweet

The logic is clear, but the effect is a little confusing.

Oxford Dictionaries declares both single and double quotation marks are acceptable in American usage, but urges writers to stick to one or the other. However, most authorities lean towards double quotation marks under ordinary circumstances.

Stills from 'Un Chien Andalou'
Local Citizens Confused, Nauseated After Watching ‘Un Chien Andalou’

If all this has your head spinning, just remember that the raison d’être of punctuation is clarity. First ask yourself, do you really need quotation marks around that word or phrase? Would italics work just as well, or better? (See Quotation Marks, Parts One and Two.) Second, will using both single and double quotation marks in the same piece make things more or less comprehensible for your readers? Is what you gain in precision worth what you’re losing in visual coherence?

Once you have pondered these questions and come to a decision, punctuate as you see fit. But be prepared to defend your choices to the death. Or at least on Twitter.

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