“Quotation marks” or ‘inverted commas’?

May 31, 2019

‘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:

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‘The’ way to emphasise a word

June 14, 2016

Quotation marks for ‘emphasis’ are common in unedited writing but rare in formal prose, where italics are the usual approach. Bold and underlines are occasionally used; ditto *asterisks* and _underscores_. ALL CAPS and Initial Caps are sometimes favoured but can suggest shouting, humour, or a headline effect, so they’re more suited to informal contexts: both are popular on social media, for example.

There’s an anomalous example in a book I just read, Rough Ride: Behind the Wheel with a Pro Cyclist, an engrossing memoir/exposé by Paul Kimmage (Yellow Jersey Press, revised edition, 2007). It occurs about halfway in; Kimmage is describing the effect of Stephen Roche winning the Tour de France:

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‘Emphatic’ quotation marks and consonant doubling

March 29, 2014

I have two new posts up at Macmillan Dictionary Blog, one on errant punctuation and one on a sometimes tricky aspect of spelling and morphology.

The ‘emphatic’ use of quotation marks summarises accepted uses of quotation marks, including scare quotes, before considering a common but non-standard use:

Sometimes people use quotation marks to stress a word or phrase, and this clashes with the general understanding of how the marks – and scare quotes – are properly used. In a comment to my recent article on the use of apostrophes, Kristen said she found this habit troublesome, offering the example ‘fresh’ fish, which inadvertently casts doubt on the freshness of the fish – the very opposite impression to what’s intended.

If you saw a window sign for ‘homemade’ stew or a label promising ‘delicious’ waffles, would the punctuation affect how you imagine the food? What about a cosmetic product that’s ‘good’ for your hair, or a claim that a service is ‘free’?

All the examples are real, found in the “Quotation Mark” Abuse pool on Flickr. My post presents the case for the defence, then provides some truly puzzling examples.


Patterns of consonant doubling looks at whether and when to double consonants at the end of suffixed words. Fluent speakers, who tend to have a feel for the rules,

know that nod forms nodded and red redder (doubling the d), yet brood forms brooded and dead deader (no doubling). Turning flop into an adjective by adding the suffix –y gives us floppy, doubling the p, but soap becomes soapy, with no doubling.

Vowels play an important role. Notice the short vowel in nod and flop and the relatively long ones in brood and soap. Short vowels tend to mean we double the final consonant; long vowels tend to mean we don’t. The latter are often detectable by the word’s ending with e after a consonant: compare mop (mopped) and mope (moped), tap (tapped) and tape (taped), pin (pinned) and pine (pined), and similar pairs.

The article goes on to explain the role played by syllable stress (compare offered and referred), notes exceptions and exceptions to the exceptions, and concludes with the best possible rule for dealing with this messy area.

Your thoughts, as always, are welcome here or at Macmillan; older articles on words and language are available in the archive.

‘Scary quotes’

May 9, 2012

You’ve probably heard of scare quotes, well here’s scary quotes.

This is an image from the BBC news website today. Note the scary phrases in quotation marks, aka inverted commas:

Scary quotes commonly appear in headlines and subheadings. Some indicate reported speech or text, a common function of quotation marks; others paraphrase. They are a subset of claim quotes, an unofficial journalistic term for what Martyn Cornell describes as

a shorthand way of saying “someone is making this claim and we neither give it authority nor dismiss it, we’re just reporting it”. Frequently what is inside these sorts of claim quotes is a paraphrase of what was actually said, to make it fit inside the headline space

Bombers, memory holes, vomiting and screaming: the defining feature of scary quotes is that their contents are scary. Visit BBC news any day, at any hour, and you might take fright.

Edit: On a visit an hour later, I saw ‘rape’, ‘recession’, and ‘rhino gang’ in scary quotes – and that’s just the Rs, on the front page.


Previously in novel punctuation: apostrophantoms.

On the rampant misuse of quotation marks

May 20, 2009

On a walk through Salthill yesterday I saw this eye-catching window display:

Stan Carey - Volvo Ocean Race 2009

It’s a charming notice, but its peculiar use of punctuation is what particularly interests me, because I can’t recall ever seeing quotation marks used quite like that before.

Quotation marks have been proliferating indiscriminately in English, like transposons in our DNA. They are greatly misunderstood even compared to other punctuation marks. Public signs and notices boast especially egregious and incongruous examples, as evidenced by a Flickr pool, a blog, and an old website.

Scouring the Flickr pool (for research and fun – they’re easily blended), I noticed a few general patterns and types of errant usage. My apologies in advance for the runaway link-fest, but once I began browsing these galleries it became difficult to stop, and I wanted to convey the extent of the phenomenon and to present some of my favourites.

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How to use quotation marks

February 24, 2009

This is a general overview of current usage and guidelines.

Quotation marks, also known as inverted commas in British English, can be single (‘) or double (“). WordPress is determined to curl them, sometimes the wrong way, but no matter. In British English, single marks are traditionally preferred, with double marks inside them as required, then single again and so on:

‘He asked me, “Will you pick up a copy of ‘The Echo’ for me?'”

The reverse order is equally standard. Typeface is a factor. Double marks outside are generally preferred in U.S. English:

“She said to me, ‘What does “autopoiesis” mean, anyway?'”

Both systems are fine, as long as you’re internally consistent. Quotation marks are used in the following ways:

1. When you quote someone directly:

Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “I hate quotations. Tell me what you know.”

2. When you refer to song titles, short stories, short poems, book chapters, plays, magazine and journal articles, and radio and television programmes:

David Attenborough’s “Trials of Life”
“To the Evening Star” by William Blake

3. When you refer to a word as a word, or to a phrase as a phrase:

The word “television” is a hybrid of Greek and Latin forms.
In America, inverted commas are called “quotation marks”.
What is the origin of the phrase “skeleton in the closet”?

Italics can also be used for this purpose. I use them throughout this blog because they’re preferable to excessive inverted commas.

4. When you introduce a new, unfamiliar or technical word:

“Avidya”, meaning ignorance of ultimate reality, is related to “maya”, which is the false perception of separateness.

“The designation ‘aperspectival,’ in consequence, expresses a process of liberation from the exclusive validity of perspectival and unperspectival, as well as pre-perspectival limitations.” (Jean Gebser, The Ever-Present Origin)

Once such a term has been introduced, it is assimilated; the inverted commas are not needed after this.

5. For nicknames, e.g. Jalacy “Screamin’ Jay” Hawkins, James “Wild Bill” Hickok.

6. As “scare quotes”. These are placed around words or phrases from which writers want to distance themselves. Maybe the usage is colloquial, slang, technical, inaccurate, euphemistic, misleading or inappropriate, and the writer wants to distance him- or herself from it, or to suggest irony, scepticism, distaste or outright derision:

Death metal “music” (The writer sarcastically questions its musicality.)
Pedestrian “facilities” (The writer implies that they don’t necessarily facilitate walking.)
“Josephine” and “Daphne” join an all-female band to escape the mob. (The writer signals false identities in the film Some Like it Hot.)
The sun “goes down” in the west. (The writer draws attention to the conventional perception of the sun’s apparent downward movement relative to an earth-bound observer.)

quotation_marksSince scare quotes can and do get out of hand, some style guides advise against using them, or at least against doing so excessively. The Wall Street Journal has been criticised for “promiscuous use” of these marks as a way to convey political cynicism. The Oxford Manual of Style provides a couple of examples in which scare quotes function “simply as a replacement for a sniffy ‘so-called’, and should be used as rarely”. It contends that they are used “merely to hold up a word for inspection, as if by tongs, providing a cordon sanitaire between the word and the writer’s finer sensibilities.”

Sir Ernest Gowers, writing in Plain Words, takes a similar view:

Few common things are more difficult than to find the right word, and many people are too lazy to try. This form of indolence sometimes betrays itself by a copious use of inverted commas. “I know this is not quite the right word”, the inverted commas seem to say, “but I can’t be bothered to think of a better”; or, “please note that I am using this word facetiously”; or, “don’t think I don’t know that this is a cliché”. If the word is the right one, do not be ashamed of it: if it is the wrong one, do not use it.

Nonetheless, scare quotes remain very popular, especially in journalism.

Quotation marks and punctuation

In American English, full stops and commas go inside quotation marks regardless of the sense, i.e. whether or not they are part of the quote. Colons and semicolons go outside, and the position of question marks and exclamation marks depends on the sense.

In British English, the position of full stops, commas, colons, semicolons, question marks and exclamation marks relative to inverted commas generally depends on the sense. The emphasis is on grammatical logic – see the quote by Gowers, above, for examples. Some British publishers and authors prefer American convention, always placing full stops inside inverted commas for aesthetic reasons, but most advice on British English usage follows Fowler.

A completely logical system seems impossible, such as when certain multiple stops appear (e.g. “Were you asked ‘Why did you do it?’?”). Obviously one of these question marks has to go, but there isn’t unanimous agreement on which. A detailed examination of inverted commas and punctuation would require several pages. The most important things are to avoid confusing the reader and to avoid changing the meaning of the quote.

One last thing, in passing: Quotation marks are commonly used to emphasise quoted material, but this is not standard usage.

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