Previous: Quotation Marks in Titles
There is one very special use of quotation marks which it is useful to know
about: we use quotation marks when we are talking about words. In this
special use, all varieties of English normally use only single quotes, and not
double quotes (though some Americans use double quotes even here). (This is
another advantage of using double quotes for ordinary purposes, since this
special use can then be readily distinguished.) Consider the following
In the first example, we are using the word `men' in the ordinary way, to refer
to male human beings. In the second, however, we are doing something very
different: we are not talking about any human beings at all, but instead we are
talking about the word `men'. Placing quotes around the word we are talking
about makes this clear. Of course, you are only likely to need this device when
you are writing about language, but then you should certainly use it. If you
think I'm being unnecessarily finicky, take a look at a sample of the sort of
thing I frequently find myself trying to read when marking my students' essays:
- Men are physically stronger than women.
- `Men' is an irregular plural.
I'm sure you'll agree this is a whole lot easier to read with some suitable
- *A typical young speaker in Reading has done, not did, and usually
also does for do and dos for does.
Failure to make this useful orthographic distinction can, in rare cases, lead to
- A typical young speaker in Reading has `done', not `did', and usually
also `does' for `do' and `dos' for `does'.
If what you mean is the second, writing the first will create momentary havoc in
your reader's mind. (The second statement is true; the first is wrong by about
70 years.) Here we have a particularly clear example of the way in which good
punctuation works: in speech, the phrases the word processor and the word
`processor' sound quite different, because they are stressed differently; in
writing, the stress difference is lost, and punctuation must step in to do the job.
- The word processor came into use around 1910.
- The word `processor' came into use around 1910.
Printed books usually use italics for citing words, rather than quotation
marks. If you are using a keyboard which can produce italics, you can use
italics in this way, and indeed this practice is preferable to the use of quotes.
In one circumstance, though, italics are not
possible: when we are providing brief translations (or glosses, as they are
called) for foreign words. Here's an example:
This example shows the standard way of mentioning foreign words: the foreign
word is put into italics, and an English translation, if provided, follows in
single quotes, with no other punctuation. Observe that neither a comma nor
anything else separates the foreign word from the gloss.
- The English word `thermometer' is derived from the Greek words
thermos `heat' and metron `measure'.
You can even do this with English words:
In this case, it is clearly necessary to use italics for citing English words,
reserving the single quotes for the glosses.
- The words stationary `not moving' and stationery `writing materials'
should be carefully distinguished.
Summary of quotation marks:
- Put quotation marks (single or double) around the exact
words of a direct quotation.
- Inside a quotation, use a suspension to mark omitted
material and square brackets to mark inserted
- Use quotation marks to distance yourself from a word or
phrase or to show that you are using it ironically.
- Place single quotation marks around a word or phrase
which you are talking about.
Copyright © Larry Trask, 1997