There's no such thing as 'quotation marks lite'

This sentence contains an example of an error I see all too often, including in the work of professional writers: Known as ‘hashtags,’ these keywords are popular in social media.

That’s not how single quotation marks work. Yet almost every time I see this punctuation mark, this is how it’s used — a job I call “quotation marks lite.”

Regular quotation marks have several jobs. Their main job is to indicate direct quotations or excerpts. They can also indicate irony.

Finally, quotation marks can indicate that a certain word is actually a focus of the discussion. Consider this sentence: I know “that” is often overused. The quotation marks are the only way the reader can be sure that we’re talking about the word “that.” Without the quotation marks, what’s meant by “that” could be misconstrued.

This is a sanctioned use for quotation marks, one that the Chicago Manual of Style refers to as discussing “words as words.”

Not many people know this and instead think quotation marks only indicate direct speech. So when some people want to discuss a word itself, they figure that regular quotation marks don’t fit the bill. Single quotation marks seem like the perfect compromise: not too soft, but not so strong that they indicate direct speech.

Unfortunately, single quotation marks are not just milder forms of regular quotation marks. They have a specific job to do: They work within regular quotation marks.

Say you’re quoting someone who’s quoting someone else: Bob said, “Joe yelled, ‘Hello.’”

That’s when single quotation marks come into play. They do all the things regular quotation marks do, except they do them within regular quotation marks. Like their beefier siblings, single quotation marks can indicate “words as words,” but only within other quotations: Bob said, “Joe can’t pronounce ‘nuclear.’”

There are several reasons why these simple punctuation marks are so misunderstood.

First, a closing single quotation mark often looks identical to an apostrophe. This causes problems when a single quotation mark appears next to a period or comma. For example, see in our “nuclear” sentence above how the period comes before the single quotation mark as well as before the regular quotation mark?

An apostrophe would not go there. Because an apostrophe represents a dropped letter, it stays attached to the word it’s part of, so a period never comes before it: I’m just sayin’.

Second, many computer programs will change an apostrophe into an open single quotation mark. Type “‘Tis the season” or “the ‘90s” into a word-processing program and you’ll see what I mean.

Third, anyone who takes a cue from news media could be easily confused. In headlines, many news outlets use single quotation marks in place of regular ones.

But usually, unless you’re writing a quotation that appears within another quotation, there’s no call for single quotation marks. And if you’re ever tempted to use them as “quotation marks lite,” try to resist the impulse.

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