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Content Marketing Nuances: Double vs. Single Quotation Marks

Relatively speaking, punctuation is a fairly new development in the history of writing. The problem with including punctuation, paragraph breaks, or any graphemes not undeniably necessary for conveying meaning is that writing materials were, until the last few centuries, extremely costly or extremely inconvenient. Clay tablets, wax surfaces, bark, and leaves – all of which were used for writing at different times and in different cultures – have obvious disadvantages. Papyrus and parchment were both labor-intensive and expensive materials to make. Even ink, especially in vivid colors, required pricey materials to create. In fact, some legal documents from the Late Middle Ages indicate that scribes and artists were paid not by the merit of their work but by the amount of rare pigment that was used in its creation. Of course, those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it – at nearly $3,000 a gallon, even cheap black printer ink is an incredibly precious commodity in modern offices.

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15th century excerpt from a Latin manuscript: Book of Hours

So, to conserve space on expensive pages and preserve the costly ink used to fill those pages, scribes would pack as many words as possible into their work. In many manuscripts that predate the printing press, it’s virtually impossible to tell where one word ends and the next begins; there’s even a term for this style of writing: “scriptura continua.”

By the middle of the 16th century, punctuation was beginning to become standardized because of the expanded use of printing presses, the corresponding plummeting costs of paper and ink, and wider distribution networks for books. For example, double quotation marks became common in printed works between the 16th and 17th centuries. The single quotation mark was developed around the turn of the 19th century in order to clarify the use of quotes within quotes.

In America, using quotation marks is relatively easy and generally follows the history of quotation marks: double quotes are used for direct quotations, and single quotes are used to mark quotes within quotes. Below are two examples:

  • Abraham Lincoln wrote that “the leading rule for the lawyer, as for the man of every other calling, is diligence.”
  • Our history teacher told us, “Abraham Lincoln wrote that ‘the leading rule for the lawyer, as for the man of every calling, is diligence.’ ”

In the United States, we also use double quotation marks in a few other conventional ways:

  1. To denote titles of short works like articles, poems, TV episodes, or songs. (Italics are used for titles of longer works like magazines, long poems, TV series, or albums; at 434 lines, T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land is often regarded as the quotation mark/italics demarcation.)
    -The writers of Breaking Bad incorporated many literary references into the show, like Walt Whitman’s famous poem “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer.”
    -Time recently ran an interesting piece about how video evidence is interpreted and used in the courtroom entitled “The Problem With Police Body Cameras.”
  2. To indicate that words are being discussed as words. (Sometimes italics are also used for this purpose – as long as a piece is consistent with usage, either method is correct.)
    -Interestingly enough, the words “lawyer” and “loyal” both share a common root word in Latin.
    -During his grand jury testimony, Bill Clinton famously remarked, “it depends upon what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.” (Note that single quotation marks are used here because the word being discussed as a word is within a quotation.)
  3. To indicate sarcasm; these are known as “scare quotes,” though the term “scare quotes” can also mean quotes that are used to scare readers.
    -To be clear, your “argument” is that if we allow same-sex couples to marry, people will soon be able to marry their dishwashers?
    -I stopped asking him for advice when I discovered that his “credentials” consisted primarily of photoshopped certificates printed at Kinkos.

Controversy over the use of quotation marks arises because different parts of the world use quotation marks in different ways. In British English, for example, single quotation marks are used for direct quotations, while double quotation marks are used for quotes within quotes. The “correct” use of other punctuation, such as periods, with quotation marks also raises a lot of hackles among grammarians. The primary issue is how to treat something within quotation marks as a syntactical unit. In American English, most punctuation goes within quotation marks: One of my favorite poems is “Birches.” In British English, punctuation frequently goes outside of quotation marks: One of my favorite poems is “Birches”.

The British English style of punctuating is often referred to as “logical punctuation”; however, the simple truth is that all punctuation is generally either (1) used as a convention – which has no relationship to logic whatsoever (it’s conventional to say “bless you” when someone sneezes, the logic – and origin – of which is fairly dubious) or (2) used to clarify meaning – there’s likely no confusion about the meaning of the sentence above: One of my favorite poems is “Birches.” In fact, taking truly “logical” punctuation to its extreme can be quite ugly: What does Shakespeare mean when he asks, ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’?; is he being tentative or declarative in his use of ‘shall’?

Ultimately, punctuation should clarify meaning and not interfere with someone’s reading. Stylistic choices – even within a country – can vary from publication to publication, from university to university, from business to business, and from one setting to another. (Many people don’t take the time to punctuate their texts, but they certainly take the time to properly edit their resume.) Over time, the “rules” governing the use of punctuation will likely continue to change, especially since the Internet has exponentially widened the distribution network for content much like the printing press did for books.

When you’re making decisions about style on a website, in a publication, for your e-mail campaigns, on your social media platform(s), and anywhere else, the primary consideration should be your target audience. Are you marketing to casual millennials in an informal e-mail campaign? Perhaps the occasional LOL or emoticon is acceptable 😉 Are you trying to attract educated professionals to your website? Spending a few extra minutes proofing your next blog post will undoubtedly be worth your while. Are you marketing internationally? It might behoove you to become familiar with standard usage in the regions you’re targeting.

And if you don’t want to have to worry about any of this, you can get in touch with someone at LaFleur Marketing about our content marketing services. We can make your life easier, promote and unify your brand, and make your business more profitable – you can quote me on that.

Photo credit: quinn.anya / Best Bobs / CC BY-SA