In an article for Slate, Andrew Heisel probed the growth of an unorthodox use of single-quote marks:
For several years now in teaching writing classes to college freshmen, I’ve noticed some students adopt another rule: double quotes for long quotations, single quotes for single words or short phrases. They’ll quote a long passage from Measure for Measure accurately, but when they want to quote one of Shakespeare’s words, a cliché, or some dubious concept like “virtue,” they’ll go with single quotes.But then Heisel began to see that same pattern in colleagues’ writing. In news stories. Online. In 2008 I reported the single-quote style’s appearance in novels by Madeleine L’Engle and Scott Turow going back to 1973.
It took me a while to understand what was going on, but after thoroughly studying it I developed a rigorous explanation for this staggering decline in standards: kids today.
And yet it remained unsanctioned by any modern authorities. For a while Wikipedia said, “some style guides specify single quotation marks for this usage, and double quotation marks for verbatim speech.” Heisel looked at “38 different style and usage manuals” and didn’t find one that stated that as a rule. A handful acknowledged it as an occasional practice, especially in abstruse disciplines that deal with language. Most experts still looked askance at the style.
But Heisel also found—online, not in a library—The King’s English, published in multiple editions a century ago by H. W. Fowler and F. G. Fowler. After establishing the use of double-quote marks for quotations, that book states: “Some of those who follow this system also use the single marks for isolated words, short phrases, and anything that can hardly be called a formal quotation; this avoids giving much emphasis to such expressions, which is an advantage.”
Heisel quotes Harvard English professor Marjorie Garber as noting that quote marks can signal opposing meanings: “both absolute authenticity and veracity…and suspected inauthenticity, irony or doubt.” In the second group I also see writers including things characters generally feel or say or have said, but not necessarily in those exact words at a specified time, and thus not as a verifiable direct quotation.
The pattern raises some questions:
- Is the usage different in modern Britain, where since the postwar punctuation shortage most books use single-quotes for direct quotations?
- Is there enough value in distinguishing between those two types of quotations—direct and sort-of—for this usage to become useful and eventually standard?
- Since the practice seems fairly widespread despite the apparent lack of any authority requiring or even suggesting it since the Fowlers a century ago, do writers gravitate toward this use of single-quotes because it seems logical or natural?