“Quotation marks” or ‘inverted commas’?

‘Words for punctuation,’ Lynne Murphy writes in her new book The Prodigal Tongue, ‘offer a neat little laboratory for viewing the possible fates of migrating words.’

Penguin UK book cover of Lynne Murphy's The Prodigal Tongue. Red cover, with black text and white text. The main title is in speech bubbles from two illustrated men squaring up to box one another. One is dressed as a cowboy, the other in a bowler hat and business suit.When North America was being settled, norms of punctuation, including the marks’ names, were very much in flux. So when things stabilized, the names in the US and the UK sometimes differed. Certain marks, such as the comma and question mark, acquired the same name in both regions; others, such as the full stop (period, full point), diverged.

The latter group also includes quotation marks, aka inverted commas. But the facts are more complicated – and therefore more interesting – than is generally supposed. Here’s Murphy:

Quotation marks (1715) started in Britain and carried on in America, but then inverted commas (1839) took over Britain – for a time, at least. Inverted comma is not the most user-friendly name, since it takes the print compositor’s perspective on the thing (“take a comma; turn it upside-down”), rather than the perspective of readers or writers, who are more concerned with the significance of the mark in text. So in the 1970s and 80s, when creative writing became popular in British primary school curricula, educators championed a more transparent name: speech marks. These days, younger British adults increasingly call them quotation marks – a more grown-up version of speech marks. Their parents and grandparents look on this as Americanization, replacing the very British inverted commas. But since quotation marks is older in Britain, we could instead consider it a revival, a restoration, a resurrection. Americans preserved the term quotation marks, took care of it, then released it back in to the wild in its ancestral grounds.

As well as being a clear, informative summary of the terms’ historical development, and a welcome corrective to the simplistic formula ‘inverted commas in the UK, quotation marks in the US’, the quoted passage also delivers a useful metaphor: that of the dynamic linguistic ecosystem, in which usages compete in a given niche.

In my own niche, Ireland, the two terms co-exist, with neither gaining ultimate dominance. Where US and UK English differ, Ireland tends to adopt UK style. But it’s open to US (and other) practices, leading sometimes to mixed usage.

Searching Irish newspapers’ use of inverted commas and quotation marks via Google (site:irishtimes.com “inverted commas”, etc.) produces the following pattern. The numbers are fairly low, and Google hits can be erratic, but it’s a rough indication of the mix:

inverted commas quotation marks
Irish Times 227 201
Irish Independent 121 53
Irish Examiner 49 37

The Irish Mirror and Irish Sun show similar distribution but in single figures. The New York Times, by contrast, has 45 v. 5760; the Washington Post, 15 v. 1520. The conservative UK Telegraph and Times have 230 v. 192 and 360 v. 194, respectively, suggesting that it’s not just younger British adults who are adopting quotation marks.

My preference has changed over time. I grew up mainly using inverted commas, but nowadays default to quotation marks as the clearer phrase. Lynne Murphy’s The Prodigal Tongue, subtitled The Love­–Hate Relationship between American and British English, is superb, by the way. I posted a few more quotes and excerpts on Twitter.

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36 Responses to “Quotation marks” or ‘inverted commas’?

  1. Harry Lake says:

    I believe I have always used ‘quotation marks’ and ‘inverted commas’ more or less equally and as the mood or whim takes me. I’m 73 and a British (English) translator. (There too I use both more or less indiscriminately!)

  2. stuartnz says:

    I read Prodigal Tongue largely because of your Twitter recommendation, and loved it. I found that in a surprising number of instances my own NZE idiolect makes use of both US and UK options, often with no discernible preference. In the case of “, though, my usage trend is similar to yours. I grew up calling them “inverted commas”, and gradually shifted. Apparently, I didn’t grow up, though, because Murphy calls “quotation marks” the grown up version of what I still call them – speech marks. :-)

    • Stan Carey says:

      Thanks for acting on my recommendation, Stuart! I’m glad you enjoyed the book, and not surprised. I don’t think I’ve ever used speech marks; that phrase didn’t seem to catch on in Ireland, unless I haven’t been paying attention.

      • Harry Lake says:

        I have a strong suspicion, based on nothing but my own prejudices and age, that ‘speech marks’ is an invention designed to make the teaching of English easier. In other words, I believe its genesis lies in making things simpler, or to put it another way, ‘if we use “speech marks” we won’t have to teach the little blighters what “quotation” is, or “inverted”‘.
        On the other hand, I could and would simultaneously argue that making things easier for teachers is a good thing.

        • Stan Carey says:

          That would chime with the quoted passage above: “In the 1970s and 80s … educators championed a more transparent name: speech marks.”

          • stuartnz says:

            That fits the timeline for me – I started school in 1972. I definitely heard “inverted commas” and “quotation marks” from teachers, especially in later schooling, but clearly the then-novel coinage stuck.

  3. Rich G says:

    I think “in inverted commas” now has a strong connotation of “in scare quotes”, and more so than “in quote/quotation marks” has – diminishing rather than establishing authority.

    But then the closing inverted comma isn’t inverted at all, merely raised.

    cf “When words are quoted out of another Author, they should be markt thus[ “] on the side, which Printers call a *Double Comma* turn’d.” https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=ax1lAAAAcAAJ&pg=PA61 (cfcf p. 58: “An *Apostrophus* (commonly, but not rightly called an *Apostrophe*)…”.)

    • Stan Carey says:

      Interesting note in that book, thanks, Rich.

      I wonder about the connotations of authority or the opposite. Air quotes is closer to quote/quotation marks, though that’s not to say it has any effect on the latter phrase’s status.

  4. Duncan Campbell says:

    In Times New Roman, only half are inverted commas, so how about sixty-six and ninety-nine?

  5. lynneguist says:

    Thanks for writing about my book, Stan (and for the fun Irish data!). And thanks for reading it, Stuart!

    Reading that first quotation, though, I’m thinking: “Why did I say ‘laboratory’? Shouldn’t I have said ‘petri dish’ or something?”

    A piece of writing is never finished. It’s just sometimes published. :)

    • Stan Carey says:

      My pleasure, Lynne! It’s a great book. I could have picked something on virtually any page to blog about. And I think either metaphor works fine, so long as it’s not examined too microscopically. ;-)

  6. Beverley C Rowe says:

    But what about the distinction between double quotes and single? And what about another level of quotes?
    I spend a lot of my time writing programs in Javascript. One has to be completely precise about the use of quotes and often needs a third (or even fourth) variant. This is a made up example but such problems occur frequently:
    quote = ‘He said “This is John\’s book and it is called \”A Linguist\’s Diary\””‘;
    (Punctuation of programming statements is a subject in its own right. I wrote a statement recently that ended with this sequence of characters:
    .’,’ ‘,[ ]];
    .)

    • John Cooper says:

      The difficulty of entering such characters correctly (often by thwarting the algorithms of the text inputting routine) is illustrated by the fact that two of the marks in your example are incorrect: the opening marks before the title of John’s book, and the final mark, just before the semicolon. (This is, I again emphasize, is probably not the fault of the human being behind the post.)

      • Stan Carey says:

        These faults lie with WordPress.

        • Beverley C Rowe says:

          Yes. I sometimes have problems copying code from internet examples. The browser, or whatever, helpfully makes a distinction between opening and closing quotes, thus using characters that are unrecognisable to the compiler.

          Anticipating a comment further down, programming languages generally regard ‘ and ” as performing the same function, as long as you pair them correctly. But not always. I recently spent a long time trying to pin down an error and finally found that in one specific context I had to use one rather than the other.

    • Stan Carey says:

      The double–single distinction is something I addressed briefly in a more general post about the use of quotation marks back in 2009. Your description of Javascript confirms my decision not to get into programming: I’m not cut out for it.

  7. astraya says:

    I can’t remember what my teachers called them in 1970s Australia. As far as I can think now, my practice has generally been to use double ‘quotation marks’ for direct quotations and single ‘inverted commas’ for defined terms not directly quoting anything (as I have done for ‘quotation marks’ and ‘inverted commas’ here, not that they are really defined terms).

    By the way, I few days ago, I spotted in an article I was subediting one occurrence of two single closing inverted commas next to each other instead of a double closing quotation mark. Depending on the font, this” instead of this”. Another article had a bold apostrophe in the middle of an otherwise plain word.

    • Stan Carey says:

      That’s a practice I see sometimes, both in print and in texts I’m editing. My own style depends on various factors and sometimes changes. On this blog, for example, I started off using double marks and then switched to single, mainly for aesthetic reasons. On Twitter, I usually (but not always) default to double, because on that platform I find them clearer.

      • astraya says:

        Maybe that first attempt at two single inverted commas has been changed into a double quotation mark by the font used here.

        I don’t like using single quotation marks because of occurrences like ‘I’m going to use double quotation marks’. The apostrophe is too close to the opening single quotation mark.

      • Harry Lake says:

        Re astraya’s comment (nice Strine name, if I’m not mistaken (I often am)): the practice of using single quotes (I’d forgotten about ‘quotes’) for terms and double for actual quotations of what people say is the general rule in Dutch. I sometimes have difficulty convincing translation clients that we don’t do that in British English. I’ve found it very convenient to stick to OUP’s rules. That way I always have a major UK authority to hand to back up my punctuation and spelling. It helps, of course, that most of my work is the kind that OUP’s rules apply to. Less ‘elevated’ texts are governed by other rules and require what the English call ‘English’ spelling. I digress, sorry.

  8. I am Ames says:

    Interesting! I actually call the /’/ symbol inverted comma/s but /”/ quotation marks as I see them as having different functions. Are they different or can they have the same function?

  9. […] marks, also known as inverted commas in British English, can be single (‘) or double (“). WordPress is determined to curl them, sometimes the […]

  10. Catbar UK says:

    I can’t see the point of the term ‘inverted commas’ – to me it conveys no meaning at all, whereas ‘quotation marks’ explains itself instantly.

    Anyway I can’t remember ever hearing the term ‘inverted commas’ before. If I did ever hear it, I probably instantly forgot it.

  11. Rich G says:

    One case where a true inverted comma is not a quotation mark: as a crude but traditional representation of the c in the surname prefix Mc. Modern readers and editors may mistake this stylised letter for a mark of omission but it was not meant to be represented by an apostrophe, as that reverses the c-like shape. This unusual orthography has led to confusion in the citation of 19th-century court cases, where the surnames of obscure figures may become immortal. Epitomised by the M‘Naghten rules and explored in “M‘Culloch and the Turned Comma” [PDF]. (Other Mc-bearers insist on nothing less than a supersᶜript c.)

  12. Chips Mackinolty says:

    Although I grew up Australia in the 1950s and ’60s-when “inverted commas” was the norm, it has indeed disappeared. In the early 1990s when I worked as a stringer for interstate newspapers most copy was filed to copy takers, where the term “quote” would be used as follows:

    Open quote I am devastated comma he said stop break

    Open quote I am my own worst enemy stop break

    Still in quotes I will never do it again stop em dash ever stop close quote break

    Equalling:

    “I am devastated,” he said.

    “I am my own worst enemy.

    “I will never do it again—ever.”

    When moving from quotations to ordinary text, this would be signalled by the instruction

    New par

    The newspaper style guide I filed to always had double quote marks for quoted remarks, with single quote marks for quotations within the main remark.

    As in

    “He told me to ‘go way’.”

    The copy takers—mostly women—were wonderful and would often suggest corrections and mistakes to yarns before they got to the subs desk, saving me considerable embarrassment!

  13. Peter Nyikos says:

    One “elephant in the room” that I overlooked for over half a century, and which seems to be overlooked here too, is the following. Most of my books published in England use single “inverted commas” for direct quotes and double “quotation marks” for quotes-within-quotes.

    Here in the USA, it is exactly the other way around, and that is the way I was taught in primary school = elementary school = “grade school”. [That last bit is standard usage in the USA; I don’t know how standard it is in the British Commonwealth.]

  14. Martyn Cornell says:

    Further to Harry Lake’s and Chips Mackinolty’s comments, the practice in UK journalism is to refer to the marks as “quotes”, thus “double quotes” and ‘single quotes’. The arrival of the internet has killed of the copytaker, but back when thgey still existed, British practice would have been to say when dictating a story with a direct quote in it: “He said open quotes I never done it governor full point close quotes”.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Thanks, Martyn. There’s obvious value in having a concise name for them (one syllable versus four or five), especially in a fast-paced context like journalism.

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