Re: Quotation Character Semantics

From: Otto Stolz (
Date: Fri Jul 17 1998 - 14:50:39 EDT

  different use of quotation marks in traditional English, modern English,
  German, and Polish.

Am 1998-07-16 um 14:04 h hat John Cowan geschrieben:
> The statement about English quotation character semantics applies
> primarily to U.S. and Canadian practice. In most other English-speaking
> countries, the custom is to use SINGLE quotation marks for quotations,
> and DOUBLE quotation marks for quotations-within-quotations.

This came as a surprise to me, as I could not remember to have seen
anything but double quotes for 1st level quotations, and single quotes for
2nd level ones. A quick look in the Encyclopaedia Britanica (15th ed.)
revealed that they use double quotes for 1st level, and they do not mention
any different use in a comprehensive article about writing (where they
indeed mention guillemets, and the German vs. French use of them).
But then I learned that this edition of the EB was edited at Chikago!

Apparently, there is some discrepancy in the literature on this topic.
Indeed, American texts unanimously use double quotes for the 1st level,
and even English texts doing it the other way round are hard to find.
All foreign textbooks on English punctuation I saw prescribe double quotes
for 1st level quotations.

I found three English texts shedding some light on this area:

Harold Herd: "Everybody's Guide to Punctuation", 8th impr. (London, 1969)
[1st impr. published 1925] says:
  Inverted commas (also known as "quotes") are employed to enclose
  direct speech [...] A quotation within a quotation is enclosed
  within single inverted commas.
     He answered sharply: "Brown told me, 'I will let you have
     the report to-morrow.'"

Eric Partridge "You have a point there : A Guide to Punctuation and its
Allies" (London, repr. 1977) [1st printed in 1953], ISBN 0-7100-8753-5:
  Formerly, "double quotes" were obligatory. Nowadays 'single quotes'
  are fast becoming very common. An inner quotation differs from the
  main quotation, in that primary '...' takes secondary "..." and primary
  "..." takes secondary '...'. 'The more logical course would seem to be
  that single marks should represent the first quotation and double the
  one contained in it. Consistency would the require that single marks
  only should be used ordinary quotation', as T. F. and M. F. A. Husband
  say in their good, long-forgotten little book, [italic]Punctuation:
  Its Principles and Practices[end italic], 1905.

John McDermontt: "Punctuation for Now" (Houndsmills (Hampshire) and
London, 1990), ISBN 0-333-51067-4 or 0-333-51068-2:
  Increasingly the fashion is for single inverted commas (' ') rather
  than double (" "), though these are still preferred by, for example,
  [italic]Times[end italic] publications. The important thing is to be
  consistent, though the use of single quotes does have disadvantages,
  particularly when the last word quoted is a genitive:
    [...]'If it's Amis's,' he said, 'it will sell at least as well as
  This kind of thing makes the reader's life unneccessarily more difficult.
  Adopting the modern convention [...], we can say that where something
  is quoted within word actually spoken that quotation should be given
  in double quotes: [lengthy examples omitted]
  (Material within double quotes is given within single quotes again.)

So, single quotes for 1st level seem to be a modern, English habit.
(I have not seen any Australian texts, though.)

I know of two more schemes for 1st level quotes (not counting the French
(also Russian) vs. German variants of angle quotes (aka guillemets)), viz.
German, and Polish.

  1st level:
  Sources: Two polish textbooks on orthography
  (Both of these sources do not mention 2nd level quotes, if memory
  serves me right -- I had to research in this matter, the other week,
  and I have not bothered to find these books, again.)

  1st level:
    Closing: 201C LEFT (sic!) DOUBLE QUOTATION MARK
  2nd level:
    Closing: 2018 LEFT (sic!) SINGLE QUOTATION MARK
  Source: The official rules for orthography, which will be effective
             from 1998-08-01 on. (The current rules are equivalent, in
             this respect). The are also available in the Internet under
             also (in Latin-1, hence only aprroximate rendering) under

I'll append examples and citations, in three formats (UTF-7, UTF-8,
and UTF-16 (Unicode) with BOM); I hope, you'll be able to display at least
one of them.

Best wishes,
   Otto Stolz

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