‘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.’
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|
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.