Inverted Commas
From 'Mechanics' part of "How To Use ABC Of Plain Words" by E Gowers (1951)

I have read nothing more sensible about inverted commas than this from the A.B.C. of English Usage:

It is remarkable in an age peculiarly contemptuous of punctuation marks that we have not yet had the courage to abolish inverted commas. . . . After all, they are a modern invention. The Bible is plain enough without them; and so is the literature of the eighteenth century. Bernard Shaw scorns them. However, since they are with us, we must do our best with them, trying always to reduce them to a minimum.

I have only two other things to say on this vexatious topic.

One is to give a warning against over-indulgence in the trick of encasing words or phrases in inverted commas to indicate that they are being used in a slang or technical or facetious or some other unusual sense. This is a useful occasional device; instances may be found in this book. But it is a dangerous habit. It may develop into a craving for inverted commas, leading to the use of them in the same promiscuous way as Victorian letter-writers used underlinings. "I know this is not quite the right word", the inverted commas seem to say, "but I can't be bothered to think of a better"; or, "please note that I am using this word facetiously"; or, "don't think I don't know that this is a cliché". If the word is the right one, do not be ashamed of it: if it is the wrong one, do not use it. It is unnecessary, for instance; to put catchment in inverted commas when writing of the catchment area of a hospital; the metaphor is a useful and obvious one.

The second question is whether punctuation marks (including notes of interrogation and exclamation) should come before or after the inverted commas that close a quotation. This has been much argued, with no conclusive result. It does not seem to me of great practical importance, but I feel bound to refer to it, if only because a correspondent criticised me for giving no guidance in Plain Words and accused me of being manifestly shaky about it myself. The truth is that there is no settled practice governing this most complicated subject. Pages were written about it by the Fowlers in The King's English, but their conclusions are by no means universally accepted.

There are two schools of thought. Most books on English advise that stops should be put in their logical positions. If the stops are part of the sentence quoted, put them within the inverted commas. If they are part of a longer sentence within which the quotation stands, put them outside the inverted commas. If the quotation and the sentence embracing it end together, so that each needs a stop at the same time, do not carry logic to the lengths of putting one inside and one out, but be content with the one outside. To give three simple examples of the application of this advice to question-marks:

I said to him "Why worry?"
Why did you say to him "Don't worry"?
Why did you say to him "Why worry"? (Strictly "Why worry?"?)

But most publishers will not have this. They dislike the look of stops outside inverted commas if they can possibly be put inside. Here is a typical extract from a publisher's House Rules:

Commas, full-stops, etc., closing matter in quotation marks may be placed before the final quotation marks, whether they form part of the original extract or not, provided that no ambiguity is likely to arise as to exactly what is quoted and what is not; this rule may not be as logical as that which insists on placing the punctuation marks strictly according to the sense, but the printed result looks more pleasing and justifies the convention.

But we need not concern ourselves here with questions of taste in printing. The drafter of official letters and memoranda is advised to stick to the principle of placing the punctuation marks according to the sense.

« Mechanics » « Guide » « ABC of Plain Words » « Use Of English » « Library » « Home »