A matter of style: what ever happened to quotation marks?

Quotation marks – double or single?

‘What?’ she asked VS “What?” she asked

I often encounter writers animatedly discussing quotation marks. Those little 6s and 9s that we used to call inverted commas in English classes. The heated debate is usually about when to use single  (‘N’) or double quotation marks (“N”) to signify that people are speaking in a piece of written work.

It’s a matter of style and convention. Please read on.

What do the experts say?

  • The Australian Government Style Manual, used by most Australian editors, acknowledges that North Americans usually use double quote marks while Australia and the UK use both types. The Style Manual  generally favours simplicity in punctuation and recommends single ‘….’ for expressing direct speech.
  • Ann Hogue’s The Essentials of English is an American publication. As you would expect, she advises the use of double quotation marks to report someone’s speech.
  • Pam Peters’ The Cambridge Guide to Australian English Usage provides a thorough treatment of this subject. Ms Peters corroborates the two references above and acknowledges that quotation marks can present a vexing issue for writers and editors alike. She notes that Australian daily newspapers tend to use double “…” quotes. Pam also tackles how and where writers might place full stops, exclamation marks and question marks – inside or outside the “s!

Wrap-up

In summary, this is a complex subject. While there are conventions in English writing that provide cues to readers that a character is speaking, the conventions vary from country to country, between style manuals and guides, within countries, and from short quotes to longer quotes.

So I return to my advice to the writers – discuss your preferences with your editor – then stick to your agreed rules throughout your piece of work.

 

P.S. I know there are other uses for quotation marks - but I have chosen to stay with their application to indicate the spoken word.

References

Australian Government Style Manual, accessed December 2023.

Hogue, A 2003, The Essentials of English: a Writer’s Handbook, Pearson Education, New York.

Peters, PH 2007, The Cambridge Guide to Australian English Usage (2nd ed.), Cambridge University Press, New York.

 

Afterthought

Have you noticed the shift away from using any punctuation for direct speech? Departing from the convention of using inverted commas is not a new phenomenon. For instance, James Joyce used a dash to indicate the beginning of dialogue.

Done well, this is a slick technique. However, there are some authors who do not provide enough cues to allow you to work out which person is speaking. This becomes frustrating for the reader.

If you join the minimal-punctuation movement, perhaps ask beta readers if they think you have done this successfully.

Author: Beverley Streater

Australian woman loving language, helping authors, embracing change ...

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