Thursday, January 15, 2009

Single Quotation Marks = Quotation Marks 'Lite'? Nope

If regular quotation marks can be used for unfamiliar terms, then single quotation marks must be for kinda-sorta unfamiliar terms, right?

For some reason, this idea seems to be growing in popularity with writers whose work I copy edit. They're writing stuff like:

The episode's 'reveal' came when Joe turned up alive.
Elizabeth 'showcased' her talents.
The poker player had a serious 'tell.'

While I can see why someone would think this, it's officially getting on my nerves (since I have to fix them).

In American style, quotation marks are used mainly for direct quotations, to denote irony, or to denote unfamiliar terms: You can "showcase" your "awesome" car by parking it out front.

Single quotation marks are usually just for quoted matter within quoted matter: "Joe told me to 'pipe down,'" Becky said. The biggest exception is in headlines, where a lot of styles call for single quotation marks instead of regular quotation marks: Body Surfing 'Totally Rad,' Obama Says.

But, according to most mainstream style guides, that's about it. They're not quotation marks "lite."

(Sorry if I sound "cranky," but I'm very "busy" working for an "employer" whose recent Chapter 11 filing is causing them to make a mockery of the word "compensation.")

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LL Blackwell said...

Those beasts, singly or paired, drive me batty! I shudder at your single quotation mark encounters--it's amazing you survive. And on the single side, today, at the LA COUNTY COURTHOUSE (jury duty!) I saw a sign: "Employee's Only."

Had I a magic marker, I would have filled that sucker in.

June Casagrande said...

Maybe the sign was right and the door led to an employee's only child or an employee's only desk or an employee's only place to hide from the shame of misplaced apostrophes.

Somehow knowing our taxes paid for that sign makes it worse, huh?

Hey, do you ever eat at Stoney Point? I always wondered whether they mean "Stony Pointe."

LL Blackwell said...

Well, actually, the sign said "Do not block. Employee's only," so maybe it was that employee's only door and they'd be trapped if someone leaned against it.

Nope, I haven't (but we're always looking for new places to try that aren't chains), but maybe when we do I'll have my magic marker with me...

June Casagrande said...

: )

If you like old school, definitely check out Stoney Point. They have a guy at the piano who can't be a day under 80 playing Gershwin tunes. And the food's really good and reasonable: duck, great pasta dishes and chicken dishes and steaks and lamb. Has a very old Pasadena vibe to it. Sometimes a people belly up to the piano and belt out a tune.

Another Pasadena note: Someone I know was speaking to a sales rep for a major publisher who said that Vroman's is pretty much the only one of his customers that's in good financial shape. That's very nice to hear in an age of disappearing independent bookstores!

Joel said...

Somehow I have it in my head that single quotation marks should be used to surround transliterations as well. Am I part of the problem? Go ahead; I can take it.

June Casagrande said...

Why transliterations? Because you want to call a special kind of attention to them while making clear they're not quotations?

Yup, that's pretty much the approach I was complaining about: quotation marks lite. I'm sure someone out there could offer enough precedent to demonstrate that it's okay. But it's not part of any official copy editing style I know of -- which is why I find myself having to change it in writers' copy.

Joel said...

Yeah, the more I've thought about it, the more I think that single quotes are used as a form of emphasis--like you said, drawing attention to something special. With the transliterations I realized that, at least to me, they're a substitute for italics.

"Lite" is a good word. And it feels good. Regular quotation marks sometimes feel (heh heh: 'feel') so heavy and stilted, and so somehow wrong. I think we're just longing for a middle ground or, he says optimistically, to add a different dimension to our expression.

I'll try. It makes things simpler, really. But, darnit, I like typing in plain text, so I don't always have the aid of boldface and italics to add texture. How do you feel about "*bold*" for bold and "~italics~" for italics? Not in publication, of course. Dare I ask how you feel about bold and italics themselves?

And all of what I've just said is, in fact, more evidence that single quotes are an abomination. But still.

Um, most of what I'm saying here has little to do with grammar per se. Maybe though. In any case, I'm curious.

I'm really not trying to be a pain in the ass. I'm just a little compulsive, I guess.

June Casagrande said...

I think asterisks around a word to "bold" it work well when bold formatting isn't available. (Though, as you said, not in newspaper or magazine.) I like your tildes for italics, too.

Bottom line: When the official tools aren't at your disposal, anything that can visually convey the same idea is (to me) downright impressive.

Re italics in general: I hae a newspaper background. Newspapers are pretty light on italics because, once upon a time, their printing presses couldn't produce them. So, in my columns, I got in the habit (as newspapers recommend) of putting quotation marks around all words I wanted to call attention to. I've come to realize that this looks terrible. It's visually disorienting. Italics, on the other hand, do the job perfectly without creating a big confusing mess on the page. In other words, I'm learning to love italics.

Re bold: I'm visually retarded, so I can't bold to great effect. But I like how it looks when other people use it well for headers on resumes, highlighted names in newsletters, section headings on brochures, etc. As for bolding a word in running text in order to emphasize it, that can at times seem a little over the top. But not wrong, per se, and not as problematic as that "quotation marks" thing "I" have "always" done that "makes a sentence" look like a "pincushion."

So I guess I'm saying that I prefer all the ways *I* DON'T do things.

(In case you're also wondering about all caps, I usually hate them.)


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