Saturday, 27 March 2010

Why are we so ignorant about inverted commas?

Punctuation is an essential tool of the trade for writers, and in the UK we seem particularly ignorant about inverted commas. They're even taught incorrectly in schools. I'm not referring to the punctuation mark that shares the same symbol - the apostrophe - but inverted commas, a.k.a. speech marks, quote marks or quotation marks.

There are three regular misuses. One is the idea that there is somehow a difference between speech marks and inverted commas used to isolate something, perhaps something 'dubious.' No - same rules apply to both.

The second problem is overuse of inverted commas to indicate 'terms' that we aren't really 'comfortable' with. If you find yourself doing this, go back and put in terms you are comfortable with. Using inverted commas in this way is amateurish.

Finally, and this is the one schools get wrong, there is the convention on when to use single inverted commas and when to use double. In the UK the convention is to use single pairs of inverted commas, then double ones if you need more inverted commas inside that first set. For example you might write:

'I just heard Mary say "I'm fed up," but she's not really,' said Peter.

In the US the convention is the opposite - double for first use, single for ones inside the first set.

For some reason, British schools teach students to use double inverted commas first - but the convention is very clear and you will find it in any UK writing style guide. Take a look in practically any book published in the UK and you will see it done this way. (Newspapers and magazines aren't such a good guide as they often go their own way on style.) So please, please, British teachers stop getting it wrong!

Several times I've pointed this out in my children's schools, but just got blank looks. Sigh.


  1. Well said Brian. Though I admit to probably making this mistake myself on many occasions - no more though!

    This reminds me of my pet peeve - the misuse of 'phenomena' and 'phenomenon'. It seems that almost everyone says things like 'A most unusual phenomena' when they should use the singular form 'phenomenon'.

  2. Excellent, but lacking in swear words, c.f.

    Which I think is mostly excellent - yet does rather devalue the use of fuck! imho, one should limit the use of this punctuation mark when one has no other option - it's when it's either one uses that word, or one breaks something relatively precious that one'll regret breaking later.

    No-one should mistakenly use single inverted commas to indicate uneasiness, when html enables italics so easily!

    Fancy a beer soon?

  3. Good job you are not a computer programmer.

  4. Peet - italics are quite different, they indicate vocal stress points, not discomfort.

    Philip - I was a programmer. But even in the UK you program in US English (that's why it's a computer program, not a programme), so that's fine.

  5. Thank you, Brian - I shall consider myself 'informed'.

  6. I suppose all of these writing style guides are good for newspapers and school students, but creative writers have a license to ignore them as they need. I wouldn't be too strident about the correct way to use this or that bit of punctuation. The rules evolve. Hidebound rule books are best for museums.

  7. Of course creative writers can do what they like - but why not use the standard unless there is a good reason. And what possible reason? I suppose so you can be pretentious like e.e.cummings and forget how to use capital letters.