A Guide to Quotation Marks In English: Rules and Errors

History of Quotation Marks

Ancient Beginnings: Quotation marks trace their origins back to the ancient Greek period. Ancient Greek scripts used a system of dots (the "diple") in the margins of texts to indicate quotations.

Medieval and Renaissance Development: During the medieval period and into the Renaissance, various European languages started to adopt specific marks for indicating direct speech and quotations. The English language, for instance, began using inverted commas or virgules to denote speech.

18th and 19th Century Evolution: The 18th and 19th centuries saw further refinement in the use and style of quotation marks. Different styles emerged, such as the French angular quotation marks and the German curved marks. Each region developed its own conventions regarding the placement and style of these marks.

What Do Quotation Marks Look Like?

Quotation marks come in various styles, primarily differing in their slant and shape. Here are some common types:

Styles of Quotation Marks
Style Appearance
Double Curly (Slanted) “ ”
Single Curly (Slanted) ‘ ’
Double Straight "
Single Straight '
Angle Quotation Marks « »

How You Should Use Quotation Marks

Quotation marks are crucial for clarity in written communication. Single quotation marks are often used for quotes within quotes or as primary quotation marks in British English, while double quotation marks are typically used for direct quotations and are the standard in American English.

While single quotation marks were typical of British English, double quotation marks are tending to dominate more.

How You Should Use Quotation Marks

Quotation marks clarify speech and text in writing. Their usage varies slightly between single and double marks:

How Not to Use Quotation Marks

Misusing quotation marks can lead to confusion or unintended meanings. For example, using them for emphasis is incorrect and can imply irony or sarcasm. Additionally, mixing single and double marks haphazardly disrupts the consistency and clarity of the text.

Common Mistakes with Quotation Marks

One of the most common errors involves the placement of other punctuation in relation to quotation marks. In American English, periods and commas are placed inside the marks, while in British English, they are usually outside unless part of the quoted material.

Common Mistakes with Quotation Marks

Common mistakes include incorrect placement of punctuation and mixing up single and double marks:

Quotation Mark Errors and Corrections
Incorrect Usage Correct Usage
"The weather was very 'hot'." "The weather was very hot."
He said, 'I'm "happy" to help.' He said, "I'm happy to help."
“She said”, instead of “She said,” “She said,”

Non-Speech Use of Quotation Marks

Beyond indicating direct speech, quotation marks have several other applications in writing. These non-speech uses add nuance and specific meanings to the text:

Non-Speech Uses of Quotation Marks
Use Description and Example
Sarcasm or Irony To indicate a word or phrase is meant sarcastically or ironically, e.g., He went to the office to do some 'work'.
Technical Terms or Jargon To introduce a term that may be unfamiliar to the reader, e.g., The carpets have been ranked by what is known as 'face weight'.
Titles of Works For short works or parts of a larger work, such as article titles, poem titles, or book chapters, e.g., Her favourite chapter is "The Rise of the Phoenix" from the book.
Highlighting Specific Words To draw attention to a particular word or phrase, often used in definitions or discussions about the word itself, e.g., The word "ephemeral" means lasting for a very short time.
Reported Speech To indicate a paraphrase or summary of what someone said, not a direct quote, e.g., The manager said the project was "under control".

Changing Patterns of Use

Usage patterns of quotation marks have been evolving, especially with the influence of digital communication and social media. For instance, there is an increased use of single marks in British English for internal quotations, and a growing preference for double marks in online platforms for enhanced clarity.

Quotation Marks in Other Languages

While many languages have their unique quotation marks, some also use English-style quotation marks either in specific contexts or as an alternative to their traditional marks:

Use of English-Style Quotation Marks in Different Languages
Language Usage of English-Style Quotation Marks
French Primarily uses angle quotation marks (« ») but English-style marks are sometimes used in informal settings or digital communication.
German Traditional marks are low-9 („ “) and high-6 (“ “), but English-style marks are often used in informal writing and online.
Dutch Uses English-style quotation marks frequently, especially in informal contexts and digital media.
Swedish Traditionally uses double angle marks (” ”), but English-style marks are increasingly common in less formal writing.
Polish English-style quotation marks are used alongside traditional Polish marks („ “ and ” ”) in various contexts.
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