An ‘infestation’ of ‘inverted commas’

This entry was posted on Tuesday, February 16th, 2010 at 4:59 PM

“Anything that causes you to over-react or under-react can control you, and often does,” reads the quote in the book I’m reading. It’s a book about improving productivity and the quote is absolutely correct.  However, it was more relevant at the moment I read it than the author could possibly have imagined.

I found myself very much over-reacting to his over-use of quote marks. He’s wrapped them around anything and everything. On one page alone there are nine instances of totally unnecessary inverted commas. And the very fact I’ve bothered to count them shows I’m over-reacting, and that these seemingly innocuous little punctuation marks are indeed controlling me.

I find them distracting. They force me to pause and emphasise the framed word in a particular way and with a very particular voice in my head that I heartily dislike. So that (and counting the marks) means my productivity is slowed right down: the total opposite of the book’s point.

So when and where should quotation marks be used?

When to use quotation marks

Quote marks, also known as speech marks and inverted commas are used around:

They are not used around colloquial or slang words and phrases. According to the Oxford English Style Guide that would be like using them to replace a ‘rather sniffy so called’. This is the example it gives:

“They have cut down the trees in the interest of ‘progress’.”  But I also think they are used as a replacement for ‘so called’ in lots of other, less sniffy instances, and it’s that usage that really irritates me as you’ll find out later in this post. If you choose to read on of course!

Which type should you use?

There are two types of quotation marks: single and double.

The Oxford English Style Guide says that British practice is to enclose quoted matter between single quotation marks, and to use double marks for a quotation within a quotation.

It goes on to say that this style is preferred in academic books but is reversed in newspapers and in the US. I must admit I prefer to use double quotes for anything I quote from a book and single marks for anything quoted within that.

While either is correct you must use whichever style you choose consistently.

Here are some examples.

Direct speech

“Too many quotation marks make my eyes spin and my head ache,” said Elaine in an irritated, irrational kind of way.

You could write that statement indirectly without the quotation marks, like this:

Elaine said that too many quotation marks make her eyes spin and her head ache.


‘Wind in the Willows’ by Kenneth Grahame is one of my favourite books (it’s just gorgeous. Give yourself a treat and dig it out if you haven’t read it in a while).

I can’t wait for the next series of ‘Spooks’ (but if they kill-off Lucas, I’ll never watch it again).

For quotations

If you are quoting something from a book or other source, you need to put inverted commas around the quote. You should also name the source.

“Though it was past ten o’clock at nigh, the sky still clung to and retained some lingering skirts of light from the departed day; and the sullen heats of the torrid afternoon broke up and rolled away at the dispersing touch of the cool fingers of the short midsummer night.” (Chapter 7, ‘Wind in the Willows’ by Kenneth Grahame).

How not to use quotation marks

Now this is usage that really gets to me.

(My inverted commas are in red and I’ll tell you why I’ve used them in a minute).

Even those who are not consciously “stressed out” will invariably experience greater relaxation, better focus, and increased productive energy when they learn more effectively to control the “open loops” of their lives.

Using quote marks around words like this means they are implied or a concept. Imagine the phrase so called in front of each of them. Now imagine reading so called in front of nine words or phrases on a single page!

In the above example there is no reason to use quotes around stressed out as it’s a well-known and accepted phrase.

The inverted commas around open loops are valid at this point because the author is introducing it as a concept. However, once he’s introduced it, he should ditch the quote marks. He doesn’t.

Here’s another example (and a very pertinent one at that!):

What most “bugs” you, distracts you… or in some other way consumes a large part of your conscious attention? (mmm, let me think).

Again, there’s no reason to wrap the word bugsin quotes. So why have I done that in the last sentence and around so called and open loops earlier? And why have I used double quotes around the two examples I’ve given you?

My double inverted commas show that I’ve lifted the quote from a book. They’re not my own words. I should also tell you the name of the book and its author, but since I’m criticising him, I’m not going to – sorry.

The quotes around so called and bugs avoid confusion by separating them in the sentence. I’m highlighting them, if you like, as the reason for having them in the sentence may otherwise be lost.  An alternative is to put them in italics, as I’ve done here.

I suppose ironically, (and yes it really is ironic) although the plague of inverted commas in my be more productive book distracted me, ultimately they have made me more productive. After all, they did prompt to write this blog post.

It’s just so ironic | End apostrophe abuse

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Hello. I'm Elaine, I'm a copywriter and this is my blog.

It's mostly about words and writing - things that inspire me, entertain me, and make me smile. Sometimes it's about things that horrify me so much I want to scream and shout!

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