My Job Description Requires I Be Wrong About Quotation Marks

Quotation MarksAs you all know, I work with writers all over the world. This creates a special problem. It’s difficult to work with freelancers regardless. When you work with employees, everyone can be depended upon to know the company style. But that’s asking a bit much for a writer who might have a dozen clients. But I find dealing with the British variants of English to be more annoying. This is mostly because I think the British are just being difficult by insisted upon things like adding unnecessary “u” characters into words that clearly don’t need them. I’m also not keen on the use of “s” when “z” is obviously called for. The quotation marks are different.

The British are absolutely right about quotation marks. And in practice, they are far more important than all the Us and Zs combined. There are two aspects of this. The one that most offends me is the ordering of quotation marks. It’s very possible that I will die due to a brain aneurysm because I start thinking about how we move from two to one to three when nesting quotes. The second issue is equally maddening but it doesn’t upset my sense of mathematical clarity quite as much. I am talking about, of course, the way quotation marks interact with punctuation.

Numbering Quotation Marks

The British number quotation marks the way that one would if one were simply not crazy. You could be stupid or ignorant or lazy, and it wouldn’t matter. You would decide that quoted material should go inside a single quote. If the quoted material contained quoted material, that would go inside double quotes. And if that quoted material contained its own quoted material, it would go inside triple quotes.

If, by chance, your triple quoted material contained quoted material, it would be a sign that you were brilliant, mean, or both. But in the British system, we would know that it would go inside quadruple quotes. This is, I have been told, the same way it works with the American system. But I doubt very seriously that American typesetters would have decided something that simple if this were an issue that ever came up in practice. For one thing, how is it that the sequence goes 2-1-3-4? I suspect the Americans would have decided that the proper designation would be something bizarre like five tilde marks, two quotation marks, and five more tilde marks.

I said, “He asked, ‘You won’t believe, but she said, ”’I found a remarkable sentence that read, ~~~~~”~~~~~Americans really don’t know what they’re doing with their quotation marks.~~~~~”~~~~~!”’?’!”

There is simply no reason to go from 2 to 1 to 3. But I go along because that is the way we do it here in the good old United States of Typesetters (typesetters having more power in this country than linguists). Strangely, though, I don’t so much mind it in sentences; I more mind it when used in a scare quote or some other place where a single word has quotation marks around it. Because in that case, it really doesn’t matter. But, you know: consistency!

Quotation Marks and Periods

The British sensibly apply quotation marks to the text being quoted. Americans understand this, because we do the same thing when it comes to exclamation and question marks. We understand that the following two sentences mean very different things:

  1. He said “yes!”
  2. He said “yes”!

The placement of the exclamation marks in those two sentences dictate who is excited about him saying yes. It’s critically important.

But when it comes to the period or the comma, there is no distinction. It really doesn’t make sense to write, “He picked up ‘the book.'” It implies that the period belongs to “the book,” but it doesn’t (just as it does with the comma in this sentence). This really bugs me. The main reason is that it is almost always the case that the period or comma logically belongs outside the quotation mark. So if you just wanted to make the language as easy as possible (and I do), you should always have them outside and not inside the quotation marks.

But the reason we do this is because typesetters of one time thought inside looked better than outside. Undoubtedly, they would have done the same thing with the exclamation and question marks as well, but there are too many cases where this would lead to utter confusion.

We Must Be Wrong Together

So I have to apologize to my writers who learned British English. On matters having to do with quotation marks, they are totally right. And I am forced to “correct” them. It sucks. But there is nothing I can do. I have written our style guide (and continue to expand it). In theory, I would stipulate that we do things the logical British way. But practically, I can’t. I have to maintain a style guide that makes sense to the reader, even though the reader is wrong.

For example, the style guide says:

Data – Data is plural, but we’ve lost the war. Use it incorrectly unless you are also using datum in the same area.

Copy editing is really not concerned with making sure the copy is correct. It is concerned with making sure the copy seems correct to the intelligent and “educated” reader. And really, we use a stupid approach to quotation marks because the United States has a bigger GDP than the United Kingdom. It’s sad.

22 thoughts on “My Job Description Requires I Be Wrong About Quotation Marks

  1. I totally agree on the British method of punctuation being correct! As an American is used to bug me a LOT to have to put punctuation inside quotes when it makes no sense. After writing professionally for a while, I got over it. Now the British way just looks wrong to me.

    On your first point, though, for some reason the whole double-single quotes never bothered me.

    I thought the rule for American punctuation was to alternate between double and single quotes, starting with double. Found this example:

    The Lord said, “Go to my people and tell them, ‘The Lord says, “You are a fallen people…”’”

    Actually, the use of single quotes first REALLY bothers me for some reason. I’ve quit reading novels before because I was so distracted and frustrated by the use of single quotes for all the dialogue. I didn’t realize it was a British thing until recently – just thought it was indie authors who didn’t bother to hire an editor. Well, I guess both were true :)

    • You were probably reading a lot of Penguin paperbacks. Good choice! The current Penguin paperback translation of Don Quixote (John Rutherford) is the best.

      Now that you mention it, I have seen the alternating quotes; but I’ve also seen the triple quotes. If I ever run into it while writing or editing, I will research it.

      I know what you mean about things looking normal. When I was young, “data” as singular sounded right. Then in grad school, my ear got trained so it sounded horrible. Now my ear is in a transition period. Used as singular doesn’t bother my ear. But used as plural sounds quaint. If I can maintain that, it will be great. But it is definitely the case that we train our eyes and ears through use.

    • There’s a blog post in that. It is a relic from the typewriter. In typesetting, you never do it. Unfortunately a few of my writers do it. And I just noticed that Toni does too. It doesn’t matter in HTML for the most part. Yes, I think I could get 600-700 words on that subject.

        • I would think it would be the opposite. No one uses two spaces where one will do in twitter. You know, I’d be much more into a verbose-twitter. Rather than 140 chars, it would be 30 words — maybe 50. The most informative tweet I’ve ever seen is “Bqhatevwr.”

      • I know it’s not necessary, but it’s how I learned so it’s what I do. And it makes sense to me, as the pause between sentences should be longer than the pause between words. So I see spaces as representing a break in talking, and two spaces represent a longer break. Eight spaces (an indentation) means a person is beginning to talk who was previously listening, so they had a much longer break.

        • Ah, you misunderstand. There is more space between sentences. But when it is typeset, that is done for you. When everyone used typewriters, they had to do it themselves. With pure HTML, putting two spaces in is exactly the same as putting one space in — or a carriage return. The system knows what to do.

  2. *Rant warning. Sorry, people*

    I’m Australian and I absolutely loathe “Americanized” spelling. It’s not just that my word processor frequently puts a red squiggle under a word I know perfectly well I just spelled correctly, or even the more recent ones that will outright change it under the guise of being “helpful.” It’s that no matter what we do, we cannot turn the bloody thing off. Switch to the Australian dictionary (or the British one if they don’t recognise the existence of Australia) and most word processors will revert to U.S. at the slightest provocation, often within minutes. Open a new document and oh, you must be an all new user and you must be American, so it’s back to the good ol’ U.S. default! It makes me want to scream. Most conniving of all, sometimes they will even run the Australian dictionary in parallel with the American one, so they accept “colour” and you think everything’s fine, until you get someone to proofread and they ask why “color” wasn’t highlighted. Any excuse to stick to awful American spelling, which I find vulgar and distasteful – Z’s are for 11-year-olds imho, and you can’t read about someone’s “Mom” without adopting that accent and reaching for the brain bleach. But I suppose it’s our own bloody fault, because go to the Macquarie Dictionary website (Aussie version of the Oxford), type in a word, and you know the first thing it asks for? Your sign-in details! So much for the casual usability of! Macquarie University, stick it up your arse.

    So forgive my schadenfreude, but I’m a bit relieved it annoys someone on the other side of the fence too. We’re all living in Amerika, Amerika ist wunderbah…

    • It’s a funny rant, though! Sounds like quite the annoyance. Maybe a free Word equivalent like OpenOffice or Google Docs might work better? Dunno, but won’t cost you a cent to try.

      • I do OpenOffice, but it’s just as annoying. And it might’ve read my rant last night because as of this morning, regardless of which dictionary you use, it’s decided to highlight all words as misspelled. Every single one in every document. Wt actual f?

        • That’s your browser. I love Chrome, but it has gotten really buggy the last several years. Regardless, try it in a different browser to see if it is the browser or something broader.

      • Google Docs is a good thing to try. I hate using word processors, but Google Docs really is a good tool. I just wish it would output better HTML. It’s ironic, but it’s HTML is just terrible. So is OpenOffice’s. So is Microsoft’s. Both seem like they were written in 2000 and never really updated. I haven’t checked out LibreOffice, but I figure it be the same as OpenOffice.

    • I don’t know what computer you are using, but it is very possible that you don’t have your operating system set to the right language. This may be the source of your problems. Your word processor should read the default language from the operating system, and if they don’t match, that could cause problems — especially like accepting both “colour” and “color.”

      I don’t especially care about any of this stuff. I just want consistency and simplicity. When I have the opportunity, I make decisions to further these goals. For example, “blonde” does not exist for me. See, Blond On Blonde.

      It is interesting, however, that I work for a British company, but we use an American style. And that’s about the only decision in our style guide that I did not make.

      • My understanding is that “blond” is masculine and “blonde” is feminine, but I nearly made it to age 30 without knowing that so if you want to discard one feel free. I’m off to burrow through my browser settings.

        • That is mostly what the article is about. It discusses the reason for this: the word is of French origin. (I respond by noting that I do not write in French.) It also discusses the sexism of using the word as a noun or even an adjective for a human. Proper usage is to only use blond to describe hair. So you would write, “That blond haired guy came to the party,” and never, “That blond guy came to the party.”

          • Interesting. I suppose that goes to the old issue of only using an adjective as a modifier for a person, never to obliterate the person themselves. I would also counter that you do kind of write in French – a particular strain of Germanised French called English, which justifies letting a certain amount of French grammar and lexicon sneak in the window. But that’s my preference because I find it more elegant, and I understand that mightn’t be everyone’s preference. This is life.

            • Well, you’ve gotten to the hearth of the matter. When I see someone use “blonde” I have no problem with it. I don’t use it because I want to simplify the language as much as possible. The problem is when people claim that “blonde” must be used to describe the hair of a woman.

              I really am a grammar liberal. The biggest problem with most grammar conservatives (although not all — some are scary good) is that they get caught up in rules and miss things that make the language unclear. Although every writer most needs a sympathetic reader.

  3. Not to pick on two pet peeves of yours, but I read an article a year ago at some website I can’t remember by one of the programmers for the website. The website had something to do with web typography, appearance, etc. The programmers had to go to great lengths to correctly convert “straight” double and single quotes in user-entered text to the source language’s appropriate quotation marks. And they hadn’t gotten the conversion completely correct yet. I’m not talking about Microsoft’s original, simple curly “smart” quotation marks. Take a look at to see the complexity of quotation marks in different languages, with combinations of right-side-up and upside-down curly quotations marks, top-of-the-line and base-line curly quotation marks, guillemets, and CJK brackets.

    (The two pet peeves of yours are I believe, (i) a post a while ago about why blogs should use simple “straight” quotation marks for readability instead of “smart” quotation marks and (ii) the present post about quotation marks.)

    As far as Keri’s dislike of single quotes for dialog, that’s not peculiar to Penguin paperbacks as you suggest; I encounter it frequently in Project Gutenberg’s Victorian (and possibly earlier) English novels. It’s interesting to read old novels because you can see how language evolves. One Victorian detective novel I read recently used the common, at the time, spellings of “to-day” and “to-morrow”; very apropos given the more recent evolution of E-mail, on-line, web site, etc. to email, online, website, etc. Then there’s “courtesy” for “curts[e]y”, the proper use of “deserts” as in “just deserts”, and so on in older novels. (I see on Wikipedia that “curtsey” was a phonological change from “courtesy” called syncope. I’m not up on linguistics, so that will make more sense to others than it does to me.)

    Regarding “data”, if I actually mean it in a plural sense, I will say “data are”, but I usually use it in the sense of “a set of data points”, in which case “set” is singular and I say “data is”. “Smack me”, as Elizabeth would say!

    • No, no, no! I was only implying that Penguin is a popular British publisher and so always typeset books in that way. (Actually, now there is Penguin American — so it probably isn’t generally true for American readers. But Penguin always had great versions of classic fiction — and the best paperback binding in the business.)

      You are right about the other article being one of my peeves. But my complaint wasn’t about readability. It was that smart quotes often screw up, Smart Quotes Are Actually Pretty Dumb.

      I wish quotation marks were far more distinct. For example, * for primary, ^ for secondary, # for tertiary. Barring that, why not ‘, ‘², ‘³?

      Regarding data, that is exactly what has happened to the word. Without most people realizing it, they simply stopped using the word “set” in the phrase “data set.” When I started this blog, I always used “data” as a plural. Now, I’ll only use it if I’m writing for a scientific audience

  4. “Copy editing is really not concerned with making sure the copy is correct. It is concerned with making sure the copy seems correct to the intelligent and “educated” reader.”

    Aren’t you always going on about how language is defined by usage? Those sentences seem awfully prescriptivist- “there’s a way that’s right, but stupid people don’t know any better.”

    I very rarely see three sets of nested quotes, so it’s never really been an issue. When it does come up, though, I thought you were supposed to alternate between single and double quotes. Triple marks? Never heard of them. Likewise, “datum” is largely irrelevant, as you almost always are dealing with a data set. Or I’ll sometimes see “this data point” or similar constructions, so it rarely comes up.

    • I’m talking about consistency. And nothing in my writing should ever have given you the impression that I don’t have strongly held beliefs!

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