29 September 2008

A New Use for Single Quote Marks?

My final posting for this Oz and Ends PUNCTUATION WEEK concerns a use of quotation marks in fiction that's not standard, as far as I can tell, but might become so.

In a few books, when the text quotes words that no character is saying in the present scene--words that a character has said before, or often says, or that another character imagines being said--that dialogue appears in single quote marks instead of the regular (American) double quote marks.

I first noticed this usage in Scott Turow's Presumed Innocent, published in 1987. Since then, I've kept my eyes open for other books using the same style, and the earliest book in which I've spotted it is Madeleine L'Engle's A Wind in the Door (1973), the first sequel to A Wrinkle in Time. (It may not be coincidence that both those titles came from Farrar, Straus & Giroux.)

Here are a couple of passages from A Wind in the Door, chapter three, showing this style in action:

The children were all fond of Dr. Louise, and trusted her completely as a physician, but they were not quite sure that she had their parents’ capacity to accept the extraordinary. Almost sure, but not quite. Dr. Colubra had a good deal in common with their parents; she, too, had given up work which paid extremely well in both money and prestige, to come live in this small rural village. (‘Too many of my colleagues have forgotten they are supposed to practice the art of healing. If I don’t have the gift of healing in my hands, then all my expensive training isn’t worth very much.’) She, too, had turned her back on the glitter of worldly success.
And a page later:
“You haven’t proven them to me,” Dr. Louise said. “Yet!” She looked slightly ruffled, like a little grey bird. Her short, curly hair was grey; her eyes were grey above a small beak of a nose; she wore a grey flannel suit. “The main reason I think you may be right is that you go to that idiot machine--” she pointed at the micro-electron microscope--“the way my husband used to go to his violin. It was always a lovers’ meeting.“

Mrs. Murry turned away from her ‘idiot machine.’ “I think I wish I’d never heard of farandolae, much less come to the conclusions--” She stopped abruptly, then said, “By the way, kids, I was rather surprised, just before you all barged into the lab, to have Mr. Jenkins call to suggest that we give Charles Wallace lessons in self-defense.”
I wouldn't have used single quote marks in those passages. (And I wouldn't have included the sixth comma in the first passage, or punctuated the clause about the micro-electron microscope within Dr. Louise’s dialogue like that, either.)

I’ve looked in style guides to see if any state this usage is standard, or even a common option, and haven’t found one that recommends treating some quotations differently from others this way. The closest guideline is a Chicago Manual of Style stipulation that in philosophical and linguistic texts certain terms might be enclosed in single quote marks (14th edition, 6.67 and 6.74).

To prepare for this posting, I kept watch for an example of standard use of quote marks in the same situation, and found one in Gail Gauthier's The Hero of Ticonderoga (2001):
Mom sighed one of her “I’m trying to keep from killing you” sighs. “No, it does not.”
The dialogue that start “I’m trying...” would be within single quote marks in the system L'Engle and Turow used. That might even be clearer about what's spoken aloud in that scene and what the narrator is recalling from earlier moments. But until that system becomes standard, and readers know how to interpret it on the fly, I think it risks being confusing instead of clarifying.

Has anyone else come across this quirk of punctuation? Has it gotten into any style guides? Does anyone use it all the time?

3 comments:

J. L. Bell said...

This blog on small business and the environment is the only place in about twenty years that I've seen anything like this use of single quote marks described.

The blog says: Second, single quotes are often used where it’s not a direct quotation but referring to a common expression. For example. The property was described as ‘a handyman’s dream’."

That blog is based in New Zealand, so it may not reflect American (or British) standards.

gail said...

I used to use single quotes in situations like you describe here. I don't know where I picked that up, but my thinking was that double quotes were for dialogue and singles were for other situations. The copyeditors at G.P. Putnam prefer double quotes, what they, too, refer to as the American style. Ninety-nine percent of the time, I defer to them in all punctuation and usage matters. Since working with them, I've switched over to the double quotes, too.

After reading this post, I'm glad I did.

J. L. Bell said...

Interesting. Some of my writing-group colleagues have also picked up the style. From where? Who can say?

Unlike some other things I've discussion during my PUNCTUATION WEEK, I don't think this usage is necessarily an error. It's not mistaken (like apostrophes in plurals), ugly (like straight quotes in a non-typewriter font), or potentially confusing. Indeed, it could avoid confusion as long as both writer and reader know the same code.

Perhaps, like new word uses or new words, this use of punctuation will bubble up from writers like L'Engle and Turow and get into the style guides. It just hasn't happened yet.