Questionable Quotations

Love it or hate it, composition professors report seeing an uptick in students' intentional use of single quotation marks outside their traditional context. 

October 24, 2014

Disclaimer: The following material may be unsettling to punctuation prescriptivists.

Everyone knows that there’s only one use for single quotation marks, and that’s to denote a quote within a quote. Right?

Apparently not. Composition instructors report seeing an uptick in the intentional use of single-quotation marks outside their traditional use, to indicate internal dialogue, irony, non-original short phrases or neologisms. And while some professors see it as a natural evolution of the written language, others see it as a transgression to be stamped out – a kind of Oxford comma debate for the blogging generation, or a Rorschach test for writers.

The single-quotation trend has been best chronicled by Andrew Heisel, a New Haven, Conn.-based writer and occasional part-time English professor, in a recent post to Slate.

‘What Have I Become?'

“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,” he says. “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.” (“Virtue” appears in double quotes in Heisel’s original post.)

He continues: “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.”

But then Heisel’s tale takes an unexpected turn. After studying the issue, it’s not just “kids” who are abusing the American quotation mark system, he says. (The usage of single, not double, quotation marks is common in British English, in which they’re called “inverted commas.” Brits put additional punctuation outside the quotes, too.)

“I saw them in another friend's manuscript – this time, of an academic book,” Heisel wrote of single quotations. “Then I turned to the internet and they were everywhere – in a local news story, in a paper by a college professor, in a blog on social marketing, in a blog on the education system, on the website of the Children's Literacy Foundation. In each case, the same short/single, long/double quote rule was followed.”

He’s startled to notice it even in the margins of his students’ papers – by his own hand. “What have I become?” he laments.

Determined to get to the bottom of the trend, Heisel performs a feat of forensic linguistics, recounted in full. He consults copy editors, linguists and crowdsourced – and erroneous – answers to questions about proper quotation mark usage on internet message boards. He also scours Wikipedia (also erroneous, and since deleted) and 38 different style and usage manuals (only a few mention this “hybrid” quotation usage, and none recommend it).

Ultimately, Heisel attributes the trend to three things: misinformation, facilitated by the internet; greater exposure to a variety of international punctuation standards, also via the internet; and laziness (it’s so much easier not to press down on the shift key to get double quotes, he argues).

But while Heisel never comes around to single quotes, he does acknowledge that they can offer some sort of “useful nuance,” distinguishing between direct quotes and phrases that are ironic, or otherwise used unusually. He notes that even Marjorie Garber, a professor of English at Harvard University, has acknowledged that they "can convey both absolute authenticity and veracity … and suspected inauthenticity, irony or doubt."

In an interview, Heisel said he’s gotten some positive feedback about his column – although most of those who have contacted him via Twitter did so to note additional, accepted single-quotation uses, such as in headlines. (That's Inside Higher Ed's style.) Others who have posted comments to his piece have traced the trend to different sources, such as the novelist David Foster Wallace. One commenter suggests the appointment of a U.S. grammar “czar” to enforce proper punctuation.

But by and large, while people seemed to have “enjoyed” the column, Heisel said, “I’m not seeing a lot of people saying they’ve noticed this, too.” Still, he added, “If they haven't before, they soon will. I see it every time I'm online.” And in his students’ papers, he said, it doesn’t seem to be confined to any particular genre.

Writing Professors Respond

Christopher Thaiss, the Clark Kerr Presidential Chair and Professor in writing at the University of California at Davis, said there’s been no surge in single quotation use among his students. (Although he said most of them do practice – probably unconsciously – the British style of putting their additional punctuation outside of quotation marks, which he called more “logical.”) But then again, he added “I'm not a stickler for either double or single quotes.”

“Frankly,” Thaiss said, “I'm much more concerned about whether students use quote marks at all when they cite passages from other writers,” to avoid unintentional plagiarism.

Dan Melzer, reading and writing coordinator at California State University at Sacramento and author of the recent Assignments Across the Curriculum: A National Study of College Writing, was equally unfamiliar but descriptivist.

I haven't seen this trend in my students' writing,” he said. But where it is happening, "I don't think it's anything to be alarmed about.”

Melzer said that English grammar and punctuation are always in a state of “flux,” and that things considered “standard” a hundred years ago aren’t today. He cited the great “shall” versus “will” wars of the early 1900s as one example (no need to say which prevailed).

 “People have always lamented the ‘decline’ of English, but I don't think English ever declines – it just changes, based on the ways people are using it,” he added.

In the Sante Fe area, Miranda Merklein has seen her students using a lot more single quotations within the last year. Merklein, an adjunct professor of composition at several local institutions, said students seem to be doing it to indicate internal thoughts – and that’s all right by her; although she teaches students the American standard of using single quotations only to flag a quote within a quote, using them for a specific, creative purpose indicates an “attentiveness” of which she approves.

Like Melzer, Merklein tells her students that English isn’t static. “Promoters of the ‘Queen's English’ forget that Shakespeare revolutionized language,” she said. “The best writers generally do, yet they do take the time learn the standards of their day before taking flight.” (At the same time, she added, “I have gotten entire papers written in lowercase text lingo with ‘sent from my iPhone’ at the bottom of the page.” That’s a no-go.)

Merklein said she believed students were mixing up their quotation use because they’re likely reading more today than ever before, via the internet. Thaiss had a similar theory, what he called the “ubiquity of writing today across digital platforms” –  especially in social media and email, which criss-cross cultures and styles.

“As a writing teacher, my overall response to that is ‘Hurray!’ ” he said. “I'd rather encourage thoughtful communication between people than have writers obsess over so-called ‘rules’ that we can see are changing before our eyes.”

Don M. Eron, who recently retired as composition lecturer from the University of Colorado at Boulder, said he understood the phenomenon firsthand: until a few years ago, when his writing-textbook-author girlfriend yelled at him, he used single quotations when not directly quoting someone.

Eron's not sure how he got into the habit, but he assumes "it made sense to me as a way of using punctuation to intensify meaning without suggesting that I was quoting someone verbatim.”

Eron said he attributed the possible trend in part to the “self-consciousness of postmodern writing.”

“Students who are readers – and they are always the best student writers – encounter a lot of self-conscious writing where words are placed in quotation marks," he said, "generally to indicate that the writer understands that she's voicing a cliché” -- sort of like “using air quotes in a conversation." (Indeed, this is  an idea that comes up repeatedly in the comment thread to Heisel’s post.)

As a teacher, Eron didn’t notice lots of students using single quotations, he said. But he appreciated a bit of cleverness in general – as long as it was in a semi-creative format. In any case, he said, student writers “commit far worse sins.”

Still, other professors find the single quotations grating.

Lee Kottner, an adjunct professor of research-related and composition courses on several campuses of the City University of New York, said she’s noticed single quotations crop up in her students’ writing within the last two years.

“It's definitely a trend and I'm not sure what to make of it,” she said. “Students do seem to be differentiating between original phrases and actual quotations this way and I've got no idea where they picked it up.”

At first, Kottner thought it was a vestige of British English, since many of her student were educated under that system, in what used to be the British Caribbean. But that theory was disproved when she realized students were using single quotations in specific, non-British ways, namely to mark “neologisms and specific turns of phrase.”

In any case, “I stamp it out firmly where found,” Kottner said, noting she’s something of a punctuation “dictator” from years spent working as a proofreader and copy editor. “Normally, I'm a descriptivist grammarian, but punctuation is punctuation, and this change doesn't seem to make a lot of sense to me,” she said. “It's also potentially confusing for the quote-within-a-quote situation, which happens more often than we think.”

Charles Green, a lecturer in writing at Cornell University, agreed that single quotations are mildly “irritating.”

Not too many students use them, he said, but when they do appear “they're used most frequently as scare quotes to signify irony or to signify a phrase that the writer seems to sense needs unpacking or exploration."

Green said he guessed that students use these quotations because they’re not sure which to use, single or double. He attributed some of that uncertainly to reading online material from varied sources and style backgrounds.

But diversion from the American standard isn’t wholly alarming, Green said, as he can always teach his students the “small stuff.”

“I'm more interested in engaging with them about the substance of their writing, and I'm lucky to have small enough class sizes that I can direct our attention much more to the ideas,” he said.

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