I want to start this one by apologising straight up to anyone relying on a screen reader to read this article. One of the drawbacks to WordPress as a platform is that it doesn’t do a great job of displaying quotation correctly – in particular, it gets super confused by quotes within quotes. I’m therefore going to be relying on a bunch of images of text to illustrate my points. I’ll do my best to describe what I’m talking about as well, but I wanted to forewarn you as I know that images of text are super unhelpful if you can’t see the image.
OK, so, quotation. And quotation marks. And displayed quotations.
Quotation can be a bit confusing, not least because the conventions vary depending on house style. Nevertheless, there are some basic rules that always apply, and once you have these down the rest is pretty straight forward.
There are several different kinds of qoutation marks. You have double quotation marks and single quotation marks. You have curly, or ‘smart’, quotes and you have straight, or ‘typewriter’, quotes. They look like this:
In English (note that there are different marks and conventions for other languages) quotation marks are a pair of marks, appearing either side of quoted material, positioned in the upper portion of the line. Double quotation marks are where each of the pair contains two marks. Single quotation marks contain only one mark in each of the pair. Smart, or ‘curly’, quotation marks are distinguished as having a thick blob at one end and a curved tail. The opening quotation mark in smart quotes has the blob at the bottom, and the closing quotation mark has the blob at the top. Some fonts omit the blob and present smart quotes as less curly and more as a diagonal line – open quotation marks slanting with the bottom on the right towards the quotation, close quotation marks slanting with the bottom on the left, also towards the quotation*. Single smart quotes resemble inverted commas, and are often labelled as such. Straight, or ‘typewriter’, quotes, by contrast, are not curved. Depending on font they may simply be a straight line (or pair of straight lines), or the line may taper towards the bottom.
Part of the problem with WordPress is that it uses smart quotes, but the use of both single and double quotation marks next to each other confuses it. So, if you’re using a quote within a quote, WordPress will insert a close single quote following the open double quote, instead of an open double quote followed by an open single quote. It’s quite distressing, as a proofreader, to have to produce work that looks like this – I know it’s wrong, but I can’t do anything about it!
Now, Word also has this problem sometimes, and part of my role, as a proofreader, is to fix this. It’s relatively easy, and if you want to make your documents look more professional, it’s a quick fix! All you have to do is go to the insert tab, click on ‘Symbol’ (it’s on the far right), select ‘More Symbols’, and you’ll be into the menu that allows you to insert any kind of character you want. If you’re not working in Word, you can still insert characters like this by accessing Character Map, which can be found at Start Menu > All Programs > Accessories > System Tools > Character Map**. This is a map of all characters available in all fonts from which you can select any character you like and copy and paste it into any document you like, as long as the programme you are pasting into has the characters and fonts available to it. Standard Windows programmes should be able to use all characters in the Character Map, but not all programmes have access to this, which can be frustrating, but tends not to be an issue with regard to quotation marks.
So, that’s what the marks look like and how to input them in Word, now let’s talk about how to use them.
What type of quotation mark should I use?
The short answer is: whatever your publisher likes. There’s no right or wrong of double vs single quotation marks, as long as you’re consistent. Your publisher will change whatever you use to whatever they like anyway, but if you can check what they use first it would be a big help to your humble proofreader. I frequently have to change single quotes to double and double to single, and in a novel length document this can add considerably to the time it takes to proofread or copy-edit a document. However, it is my job to do that, and it isn’t something your novel will be rejected for.
Ideally, a format change like this would take place at the copy-editing stage – proofreading should be for catching any deviations from style that were missed earlier. By the time a documents reaches a proofreader it will normally have been typeset, and resetting for a large number of changes like this can be a pain. It does vary from publisher to publisher, though.
I have found that in general British fiction publishers prefer double smart quotation marks and in general British academic publishers prefer single smart quotation marks. But the truth is that conventions vary considerably. Some guides to standard manuscript format will recommend that you only use straight quotation marks. This – like much of standard manuscript format – is a hangover from typewriter days. The reason why straight quotation marks are sometimes called ‘typewriter quotes’ is because these were the marks used on typewriters – they could save space on the keyboard if they only had one key which you could press for both close and open quotation marks, so it had to be straight. However, in the modern age where a computer can figure out whether you’re likely to be closing or opening a quotation for you, this isn’t an issue. The vast majority of publishers use curly quotes, and as a proofread and editor I’d much rather have a document full of curly quotes with the odd mistake of direction than a document full of straight quotes where I have to change every single one.
Mentions or ‘scare quotes’
Sometimes you may want to use quotation marks where what you’re quoting is not a literal word for word quotation. There are a bunch of different reasons to do this:
- you want to mention a word or phrase that is used frequently in a text or in speech, but you aren’t quoting any specific instance
- you want to roughly approximate something that was said, but you’re not literally quoting it
- you want to suggest that the word or phrase is in some way dubious
The first two uses are known as ‘mentions’ and the third is known as a ‘scare quote’, although the difference betwee a mention and a scare quote can be kind of blurry.
Mentions and scare quotes are different to ordinary quotes in academic texts because they do not need to be accompanied by a reference. This is less of an issue in fiction as most quotation is speech and doesn’t require a reference anyway.
Mentions and scare quotes are sometimes indicated as being different to proper quotation by using a different kind of quotation mark. So if you usually use double quotes for quotation, you would use single quotes for a mention. However, most publishers these days prefer for all instances of quotation marks to be the same – either all double or all single. This is the kind of thing that people get prissy about – everyone thinks their way is correct – but as always, house style will be applied by your proofreader or copy-editor and as an author I wouldn’t worry too much. If you’re self-publishing, however, I’d go with sticking to the same sort of quotation mark throughout, simply because this seems to be the most common style in the industry and you’ll look more professional.
Quotation within quotation
One point where people sometimes get confused is with what quotation mark to use when you have a quotation embedded within another quotation. This can happen when you’re writing speech and one character is quoting another character’s words, when someone uses scare quotes or a mention within speech, or when text you’re quoting quotes another text.
The rule is always this: whatever kind of mark you use for standard quotation, use the opposite for the embedded quote.
If you usually use double quotation marks, use single for the embedded quotation. This is true even if you are quoting a text that quotes something else. This is one of the very few instances where you can alter punctuation within a quotation. Ordinarily, you should quote a text exactly as it appears, even if it has a spelling mistake or follows a convention you’re not using in the rest of your text. Other changes should be clearly indicated as not being a part of the original text. E.g. if the original has a spelling mistake you want to correct, you should put the correction in square brackets. So, to take an example from these adorable mistakes by children:
I love Satan
can be corrected to:
I love [Santa]
But you don’t have to do this with quotation marks within quotations, or other style formatting changes, such as dash formating or ellipsis style. If your publication uses space-en-dash-space where the quotation uses em-dashes, you can just go ahead and change that. If your publication uses space-ellipsis-space and the quotation uses just ellipsis-space, you can just go ahead and make that change. And if there’s a quotation within a quotation, you just change that to the opposite of whatever style you used for the outer quotation marks. So, for example:
‘Hi,’ said Gertrude.
‘Don’t you say “Hi” to me!’ said Abed.
I generally use single quotation marks for blog posts, so when I quote Abed, I use single quotation marks for his speech. However, when Abed mentions Gertrude saying ‘Hi’, I use double-quotation marks. This is to make it clear to the reader that it’s still Abed speaking – the quote of him hasn’t ended.
Where it gets extra confusing is when someone is quoting someone who is quoting someone else. For example:
‘Don’t you say “Richard said ‘No'”!’ said Abed.
The quote within a quote within a quote uses the opposite style of mark to the quotation in which it is embedded, which is istelf a quotation whose marks are the opposite in style to the uber-quotation in which it is embedded. Basically: whatever the style of the quote in which your quote is embedded, you use the opposite of that.
Sometimes you want to separate a quote from the main body of the text. This is usually for one of two reasons: a) the quote is very long, or b) you want to display it for the reader’s reflection. We call this ‘displayed material’.
One usually only uses displayed material in non-fiction, although it is sometimes used in fiction, either for emphasis, or to represent that what is being quoted is in a different medium to the main body of the text – e.g. where a letter or poem is introduced into prose fiction. By contrast, long speeches in prose fiction are not usually displayed.
How long is too long for a non-displayed quote can vary from publication to publication, but the Oxford Manual of Style says anything over 30 words, and that’s what I go with. Standard convention for displayed material is as follows:
- the material is set on a separate line to the preceding paragraph
- extra line space is inserted before and after the material
- the material is indented horizontally
- the next line following the displayed material is not indented, even if it would otherwise be a new paragraph
Some conventions also suggest putting the displayed material is a smaller font, and some will put the displayed material in italics. Please note, however: the vast majority of publishers will not want displayed material to be in italics. What’s annoying is that a lot of programmes (including WordPress!) set displayed material as italic by default. This is contrary to all standard rules which emphasise not changing the italics of quoted material and urge the preservation of the original text in all but a few ways, as outlined above.
One reason you might use italics for displayed material is where you are representing a different medium. So, it you run across one of the poems or songs in Lord of the Rings, this will be set as displayed material and in italic, to emphasise that it is another text within that text, and that we have shifted to poetry rather then prose. Italics is also often used to indicate handwriting. Letters embedded within novels are thus usually italic for two reasons – that they are a different medium to the prose style of the rest of the novel, and to indicate that they are handwritten. Perhaps this is why so many programmes default to italic for displayed material.
You may have noticed that I myself use italics for displayed material in these articles. Well, online writing conventions are an evolving phenomenon, but the prevalence of certain style conventions imposed by the programmes in which we write affects how we write. It is becoming the convention to italicise all quotations that are displayed online. I’ll admit that I don’t like it – having been a university tutor it gives me a headache when I see this convention carried over to students’ academic writing – but it’s a pain in the behind to individually correct every time I want to post. And given that online conventions are going this way, I have joined the throng. After all, style conventions are only that: conventions.
So, online writing is an exception. If you work for a company that has a style guide (and many do these days) for your web output, follow that. Otherwise, it’s up to you, but you may wish to bare in mind that italics for displayed material is becoming prevalent.
Long quotations in fiction
I noted above that long quotations in fiction are not presented as displayed material. This is because the quotation is dialogue – speech. We don’t separate that out from the rest of the prose text because it would make the prose stilted. We’re not ‘displaying’ the text for specific reflection and, unlike in academic writing, it’s unlikely that the reader will lose track of whether what they are reading is the author’s writing or somebody else’s. Our imaginations are engaged. When we see an open quotation mark we imagine it in someone else’s voice. Displaying long speeches is neither practical nor necessary.
However, sometimes speech is written such that the character speaks for more than one paragraph. Depending on how naturalistic you want your dialogue to be, you might want to question the plausibility of your characters speaking for that long a period of time. With the exception of people literally making speeches, real live people rarely monologue without interruption. But you may not wish to be strictly naturalistic, or you may have a rare occasion where a character does have cause to talk for that long. OK. This is where we have an odd little quirk of punctuation: where dialogue from a single character in fiction goes on for more than one paragraph, there is no close-quotation mark at the end of the paragraph, but there is an open-quotation mark at the beginning of the next paragraph.
The reason for this is that we want to be clear that it’s still the same person speaking and that they are still speaking. Dialogue is usually between two or more characters, and change of speaker is indicated by starting a new paragraph. So, usually, when you see an open quote at the beginning of a new paragraph it means that we have changed speaker. Removing the close-quote at the end of the pargraph indicates to the reader that this hasn’t happened. But we don’t want to leave the next paragraph without an open-quotation mark because that might read as though no one is speaking anymore.
This styling is kinda irritating if you’re a completionist – it can be annoying that we have an uneven number of close and open quotation marks – but it really is the best for clarity. If you don’t follow this rule your reader will assume someone else is speaking, and that’s super confusing.
Remember: even if the rule seems weird, clarity is the goal!
And that’s about it for quotations. There is always more that could be said, but these are the basics and cover just about everything you’re likely to encounter in ordinary writing. Go forth and punctuate!
*To add to the confusion, the ‘prime’ symbol used in maths, science, and logic, looks a lot like a single close quotation mark rendered in a font where ‘smart’ just means ‘angled’. Usually it is differentiated by being at a slightly different angle. If it’s not a symbol you use, however, don’t worry about it. The ‘prime’ symbol usually has to be specially selected from the ‘symbols’ menu in Word, so you won’t end up using it by mistake.
**On a Windows PC. I’m afraid I’ve barely ever used anything else, so this is all I can comment on.
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