In the previous post we looked at the importance of integrating quotations into writing so that the text and ideas flow. Here we’ll be examining examples of the use of quotation marks, other than those treated in an earlier post mechanical errors with quotations. These uses do touch on how quotations are integrated into writing, as well as errors or incorrect uses by writers.
In this blog, we have discussed how mechanics covers the rules of written, not spoken, language. Graphics are devices used in writing, not in speech, though later we’ll look at a recent phenomenon of using quotation marks when speaking, namely air quotes. (See below.)
In the blog post on mechanical errors with quotations, we looked at how quotation marks are used for direct speech (not indirect or reported speech), how we handle other punctuation marks (semi-colon, colon) with quotations, and how the American practice (double quotation marks) differs from the British practice (single quotation marks). Along with this distinction is the method of marking a primary quote and a secondary one—e.g., single quotation marks to enclose quotation within a quotation. This, of course, is the reverse in British English.
The double quotation mark is older than the single. As Douglas C. McMurtrie asserts in his essay “Concerning Quotation Marks,” it’s hard to say when a mark of graphics or punctuation was first used since there are often new discoveries of earlier uses. However, many sources agree that the practice of enclosing quoted text (including dialogue and direct speech) in double quotation marks became common on both sides of the Atlantic by the nineteenth century, in a large part influenced by the growth of the novel. Though Britain switched to the single quotation mark format, the use of double quotations is becoming a more common practice in British English, if not accepted rule.
Quotation marks began as a way to indicate a passage of particular importance and first appeared in the margins of manuscripts. Later, and with the development of printing, they were used to indicate passages by other authors or sources integrated into the manuscript text, setting off material that was quoted. Then, of course, with novels, quotation marks were needed to separate the character’s speech from the narration, which according to Keith Houston, distinguished them from the earlier romances that used more paraphrase and reported speech.
The rule is simple: Use quotation marks for direct quotation of someone’s speech or writing, including dialogue, reporting, or source material, which is why previous posts have dealt with documenting sources, avoiding plagiarism, and integrating quotations into your writing.
Despite this basic rule, JoEllen Taylor, commenting on firstediting.com, says she is “still shocked to see that writers either use them incorrectly or inconsistently avoid them.” She goes on to point out that there are some writers who consciously omit quotation marks as a stylistic choice: as an example, she cites the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jhumpa Lahiri and her book The Lowland. Most writers are safer to stick with conventional uses of quotation marks for dialogue and other quoted material. There are guides available for writers to learn the formatting of dialogue, especially with quotation marks and punctuation, capitalization, and spacing.
There is one rule that could bear further attention, and that is when you quote a single speaker for more than one paragraph: in those instances, put quotation marks at the beginning of each paragraph but at the end of only the last paragraph. Also called the multi-paragraph rule, it is designed to help your readers follow the speaker. As Andy Baxter writes, “a paragraph boundary [in English] is a substantial break. It often indicates a change of topic, and is shown visually by a blank line or a line break and indentation. It is at just such a moment that a new speaker might well come into the picture, or that the narrator might resume the story.”
To keep the reader from becoming confused about who’s speaking, the first paragraph is left open, no closing quotation marks are used. However, quotation marks are used at the beginning of the second paragraph (and before any succeeding paragraphs) to show that we are still dealing with dialogue or quoted material. For an example of this practice, what Baxter calls “one of the more subtle ways writers in English guide their readers,” look at his post in which he illustrates the rule by presenting the material as if it were an interview.
Other uses – the good, the bad, and the ugly
Quotation marks are sometimes use to alert the reader to a special or unusual word or to the use of a word as a word. These words are sometimes enclosed in quotation marks. Consider the use in the examples below:
For words being defined or used in a special sense:
By “charity” I mean the love of one’s neighbor as oneself.
For technical terms or foreign words that aren’t common or universally understood:
After a person gets arrested, their first court date is called a “first appearance” or “arraignment” depending on which jurisdiction you’re in.
The English word “thermometer” is derived from the Greek words “thermos” (heat) and “metron” (measure).
For referring to a word as a word:
“Accommodation” is spelled with two “c’s” amd two “m’s.”
This practice of using quotation marks to set off the words, along with the use of underlining, is rapidly losing favor and being replaced by the use of italics (except when writing by hand or typewriter). Some people get very charged about the conventions here, such as thevisualcommunicationguy.com who writes, “throw out your typewriter and move to the digital age.”
Here are the above examples using italics instead of quotation marks:
By charity I mean the love of one’s neighbor as oneself.
After a person gets arrested, their first court date is called a first appearance or arraignment depending on which jurisdiction you’re in.
The English word thermometer is derived from the Greek words thermos (heat) and metron (measure).
Accommodation is spelled with two c’s and two m’s.
(Examples from magoosh.com, Little, Brown, sussex.ac.uk, style.mla.org.)
Quotation Marks Can Communicate Sarcasm and Irony
As commentators have remarked, quotation marks “have gained new responsibilities in writing in the past fifty years,” becoming “the body language and facial expressions of the written word” (thewritepractice.com, thevisualcommunicationguy.com).
When dealing with sarcasm and facetiousness in speech, we use air quotes, those imaginary quotation marks that we make in the air with our fingers. (While the term air quotes did not appear until 1989 in Spy Magazine, the use of similar gestures has been recorded as early as 1927.) Air quotes indicate that what you are saying should not be taken at face value and can make any word sarcastic or ironic:
My “pal” Margie was the one who started the rumor.
The person my dad hired tried to “tutor” me in Latin didn’t know a single word. (Examples from magoosh.com.)
Quotation Marks Are Not a Highlighting Technique
Some people carry this use of quotation marks for highlighting text to ridiculous and incorrect extremes, noted particularly on signs. To see images of actual signs doing this, check out examples like Dogs must be “leashed” or “No” Loitering on thevisualcommunicationguy.com or the rental agency’s Please leave “keys” in car! on thewritepractice.com.
As with most things in life and writing, moderation is important. We want to know the rules for using quotation marks so that our writing is correct and polished and so that are readers can follow our ideas or story. Use quotation marks when required and sparingly when not necessary other than showing dialogue or quoted material. When possible, choose italics to show to distinguish when using special or foreign works, when being sarcastic, or when referring to words as word. Except in dialogue and quotations, these graphics will tend to interrupt the flow of your text for your reader, lessening their experience.