November and the Quotation Mark

In 1936, Oxford’s A.B.C. of English Usage called quotation marks ‘an unnecessary puzzle to the writer and an eyesore to the reader’. The Bible did without them, and, looking at a passage from Kings in which Obadiah speaks with the Lord, the A.B.C. said it would be ‘an instructive and melancholy exercise to insert the inverted commas modern practice would demand’. The A.B.C. called quotation marks ‘inverted commas’ because that was their older name and because not everything that appears in quotation marks is a quotation.

The name ‘inverted commas’ tells us how they came to look the way they do look. Tradition has it that they were devised by Guillaume Le Blé, but since he was born after their introduction to European printing a more certain attribution is to Claude Garamond, also a French printer but a little older than Le Blé. Le Blé, however, did give his first name to the most common form of French quotation marks, ‘guillemets’ - <<>> - ‘little-williams’.

Calling them chevrons, the English use guillemets as brackets, but they are fitting quotation marks since they preserve, in their shape and number, the marks’ origins in the manuscripts of Byzantium. There, monks took to signalling quotations from the Bible by marginal arrowheads. They pointed to the words that were God’s. Monks called those marks ‘diples’, meaning doubles.

What Eastern monks did in their Greek texts, Western monks learned to do in their Latin texts. In due course, diples came to be used not only to point to the words of God but also to point to the words of the Fathers. Their words were not sacred words; they were revered words, and, with that step down, the diple was on its way to its modern use.

In the sixteenth century, diples commonly took the form of the comma but doubled as the diple was doubled and placed in the margin where the monkshad placed them. Often, they would be repeated with every line of quoted material. However, marginal and repeated diple commas were bothersome. Printers liked things to stay within the line. Diple commas in the text proper needed to be raised to distinguish them from regular commas. The inverted comma had arrived.

It took time for writers and printers to sort out how to use the inverted comma. In 1770, Philip Luckombe published a book addressed to the printing trade. In it, he gave considerable attention to the business of quotations. He told fellow printers that:

Comma's are used to distinguish quoted Matter from the mean Text for which purpose two inverted Comma's are put at the beginning of such Matter and continued before each line of the quotation till the close thereof is signified by two Apostrophus which by some is called the Mark for Silence intimating thereby that the borrowed or quoted passage from another Author ceases with that mark.

Luckombe’s telling printers to open with inverted commas and close with apostrophes is a good way of pointing out what printers must do to mark the difference. Quotation marks come in pairs but they take those two different forms. We do not now think of closing quotation marks as apostrophes, but that is what they look like. Notably, Luckombe used the apostrophus, as he called it, both for noun plurals and for the ‘Mark of Silence’.

After a good start, Luckombe went on to distinguish between uses of double and single quotation marks in so garbled a fashion that it were best that no one followed his instructions. Using the difference to signal different kinds of quoted matter has never worked well, and the modern practice is simply to alternate doubles and singles to handle quotations within quotations. 

The quotation mark, like the ellipsis and the apostrophe, serves an editorial function; it provides a comment rather than a meaning or a measure. The quotation mark, therefore, cannot be heard. That is why it is not unusual to see speakers at American conferences raising their hands to give tiny, curling waves of their index and middle fingers. They are signalling a quotation; it is a matter for the eye not the ear.

The quotation gesture is two fingered because Americans use double quotation marks where the British use one. American and British practices are opposites because a regularizing and generalizing of punctuation took place with the arrival of steam-driven printing presses and giant publishing houses in the nineteenth century. Conventions spread from London and New York, but they did not spread from New York to London or from London to New York. Beyond national borders, American dependencies followed New York and British colonies followed London. Canada alone got a complication of both styles.

The Atlantic was a formidable cultural barrier in the nineteenth century. It is not in the twenty-first century. No ocean blocks net writing; it comes from anywhere and everywhere and very much of it in English. Net punctuation is often chaotic, but it is not entirely chaotic. Amidst rioting forms, regularizing and generalizing can already be seen.

Chatters, bloggers, blaggers, emojists, emailers, moogers, texters and twitters use punctuation as decoration and cosh, but, though they produce the bulk of web writing, they do not set standards. Newspapers, publishing houses, organizations, companies, institutions, universities, agencies and governments post millions of pages that take punctuation seriously. On those pages, there is a drift towards the practice of the largest user group: the North American. Canada’s conflict is disappearing. The Caribbean and Australia are becoming less British by the posting. Asian English long ago moved to American norms. Double quotation marks will gradually overtake singles, but that is appropriate because the first quotation marks were doubles 

The A.B.C. of English Usage of 1936 insisted that quotation marks should be used for ‘actual quotations (from literature) and for direct speech’ and not anything else. Direct speech has no more than a likeness to quotation, and it might have been that different forms of punctuation were developed to mark it. It is notable that drama, the genre that depends entirely upon direct speech, makes no use of quotation marks. On the page, drama solves problems of continuous direct speech by naming the character talking each time that character speaks.

The Authorised Version did not use quotation marks for direct speech, and it might have been that the Bible’s practice became or remained the rule. However, in the eighteenth century, a genre appeared that made a great deal of use of direct speech. That genre was the novel, and it became the dominant literary form in the nineteenth century when over one hundred thousand novels were published in England.

Sometimes the novel resorted to the dramatic formula of tag naming, but gradually direct speech came to be signalled by ‘graphic devices to indicate dialogue’, as Martin Parkes puts it. Dashes were once popular, James Joyce favoured them, and they are still used, but quotations marks are, by far, the most common form of dialogue punctuation.

Direct speech is not truly quotation, but quotation marks have come to punctuate it, and quotation marks have also come to be used to mark other forms of words and text that are not quotations at all. Quotation marks then become a form of highlighting, pointing the reader to some use of the word or words beyond ordinary speaking.

Foreign words and book titles are often put in quotation marks to alert the reader to the need for a meta-reading. This is a usage that remains unsettled. Twentieth-century Oxford said that titles of books and films should be underlined. Twenty-first century Oxford says they should be placed in quotation marks. And regularly foreign words and book titles are put in italics.

As well as marking foreign words, quotation marks are used to mark words that are new, slang or trending. The quotation marks point to humorous or vulgar meanings, suggesting that the words are from a language foreign to the writer because they belong to another class or type of person. Henry Fowler could not stand this. ‘The effect of using quotation marks with slang,’ he said, in The King’s English,  ‘is merely to convert a mental into a moral weakness.’

The distancing effect of humorous quotation marks goes a stage further when the writer uses them for ironic effect.  They alert readers to meanings of the words that the writer repudiates. Irony that needs a label may not be subtle, but it may be effective. Quotations marks that signal irony appear so frequently in political, polemical and academic writing that they have been given the name ‘ironics’.

An article entitled ‘How Philosophy Was “Whitewashed”’ shows ironics in force though it is not always clear what kind of meaning is being rejected by the quotation marks: 

Two hundred years ago, the ‘slave trade’ was abolished at the Congress of Vienna. But this was owing less to Enlightenment philosophy than to political and economic considerations. For the ‘great white’ philosophers of the Enlightenment were little concerned with European enslavement of African people. This has consequences down to the present day: the philosophical canon has been ‘whitewashed.’

In polemics of this kind, irony is never far from anger, and, though the passage would gain in elegance if the ironics were removed, there would a loss of emotional intensity.

The title ‘How Philosophy Was “Whitewashed”’ shows the British practice of starting with single quotation marks and then using double quotation marks for a quotation within a quotation. American practice reverses that. The passage quoted from ‘How Philosophy Was “Whitewashed”’ has been marked as a quotation by indenting rather than by the use of quotation marks. That practice, block punctuation, is favoured by printers, and it serves a useful purpose for long quotations. The eye can easily lose sight of where a long quotation begins and ends.  The Modern Languages Association of America has a rule that quotations longer than one hundred words must be block indented. It is a good rule to follow.

Quotation marks are also called inverted commas; they come as singles or doubles; they are either curly or straight. Curly is the name given to traditional quotation marks preserving the shape of Aldus Manutius’s comma. Straights is the name given to the vertical quotation marks that were introduced by typewriter makers in the 1860s. They needed to keep the number of keys on their machines to a minimum. Since straights have the same shape whether they come at the beginning or the end of a quotation, one key could be used to type four different kinds of quotation mark: fore, aft, single, double. The same key would also provide an apostrophe and, combined with a full stop, an exclamation mark. 

The influence of the late-nineteenth-century typewriter persists into the early-twenty-first century because the early-twentieth-century teleprinter took its lead from the typewriter. Teleprinters used a pre-computing seven-bit American Standard Code for Information Interchange. Today that is known as ASCII, a code familiar to all computer programmers. In its eight-bit and sixteen-bit versions, it can handle any number of signs, symbols, figures and letters, but at the beginning it was restricted to 128 figures, letters and command codes. Economy was important. The straight quote was one of the frugalities, and, as a result, it remains the default quotation mark on the web.

The single quotation mark looks like an apostrophe, and the two share a function in providing the ditto. Two quotation marks (or two apostrophes - which?) placed under a word in a list indicate that the word above is to be repeated. ‘Ditto’ means ‘as I said’. It was a time saver in the days before copy-and-paste.

Word processing has not only made the ditto mark obsolete; it has also restored curly quotation marks to their rightful place on our pages. At the same time, curly quotation marks are now being called smart quotes. Change happens.


Next Month’s Punctuation Mark: In December, the English Project will tell the story of the Question Mark.

To see all the previous punctuation marks click here.



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