Quotation marks – do they matter?
I recently attended a meeting of writers where there was an animated discussion about quotation marks. Those little 6s and 9s that we used to call inverted commas in English classes. The debate was about when to use single (‘N’) or double quotation marks (“N”) to signify that people are speaking in a piece of written work.
Do you read fiction? Have you noticed the shift away from using any punctuation for direct speech? 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. Departing from the convention of using inverted commas is not a new phenomenon. James Joyce used a dash to indicate the beginning of dialogue.
What is the editor’s role?
Members of the writers’ group felt that the correction of improper punctuation should lie with the editor. My input was along the lines of:
There are some variations across Australian, British and American English. While there are recognised guides and manuals that inform style, a writer and his or her editor would usually establish the writer’s preferences at the outset of an editing job. Any special characteristics of the writer’s style are recorded in a style sheet.
(Just to add interest, I have expressed my input as a block quote above, instead of using quotation marks, because I am quoting more than 30 words!)
What do the experts say?
When I arrived home, I went to my bookshelf and pulled out a few reference books to clarify the single vs double quotation marks.
- 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, which generally favours simplicity in punctuation, 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.
- Then I looked at Pam Peters’ The Cambridge Guide to Australian English Usage which 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!
- This story wouldn’t be complete without a reference to A Very Modern Dictionary which advises the internet forum acronym QFT means ‘quoted for truth’.
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.
Australian Government Publishing Service 2002, Style manual (6th ed.), John Wiley, Brisbane.
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.