Nunberg pointed out that fears about the Internet causing language decline are often about exposure to voices that used to be unheard. Fowler from 1908 that describes (without recommending) this exact practice of switching to single quotes “for isolated words, short phrases, and anything that can hardly be called a formal quotation.” A study of speech communities in Belfast, Ireland, might point to whether conditions are right for hybrid quotes to finally go mainstream.
Variant punctuation has always existed, but the uniformity of printers and copy editors has hidden that fact, especially from future generations. Doing fieldwork there in the ’70s, linguist Lesley Milroy observed that women in a small Protestant neighborhood would disseminate pronunciation differences they picked up while working across the barrier in the Catholic sector.
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 But then I looked up from their papers to find this usage in the manuscript of a friend’s novel.
If you are an American, using quotation marks could hardly be simpler: Use double quotation marks at all times unless quoting something within a quotation, when you use single.
It’s different in the greater Anglosphere, where they generally use singles in books and doubles in newspapers.
In each case, the same short/single, long/double quote rule was followed.
Then I returned to my students’ papers and saw it again, this time in the margins, flowing from my own fingertips—What have I become?!? I found a copy editor lamenting on her blog that “approximately 20% of the writing” she receives puts single quotes around “important concepts or key phrases.” The copy editor’s post served to explain the rule, but I discovered that part of the reason this hybrid quote practice is spreading is that people aren’t seeking experts.
It’s still pretty simple, but nothing so straightforward as here.
Yet some of us don’t seem happy with what we’ve got.