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I've noticed a whole spate of questions here on this StackExchange using single quotes ' ' as a substitute for double quotes " " , in their function of denoting words as words. Is this usage kosher as long as one sticks to the same convention within a text? Is there an idiosyncratic use of single quotes in this manner by an authority, like the New Yorker?

EDIT: I probably should have added an example to make my point more clear. Which of the following titles is better stylistically:

Is 'passion' a more descriptive word to use in this sentence versus 'love'?

versus

Is "passion" a more descriptive word to use in this sentence versus "love"?

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I often see it used as a means of avoiding nested double quotes. (quotes inside of quotes) –  advs89 Mar 20 '11 at 19:12
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@advs89 Yes, I know that's a valid usage, but I was not talking about that, I was talking about "denoting words as words." Example: Is "passion" stronger than the word "love"? –  Uticensis Mar 20 '11 at 19:15

2 Answers 2

up vote 2 down vote accepted

Fowler says in the first edition of Modern English Usage that there is no universal distinction between single and double inverted commas. He explains that there are two systems in use: one in which a regular quotation has single inverted commas, and a quotation within a quotation double; the other the inverse. He encourages the former system. He doesn't mention anything special about single words. In the third edition, Burchfield mentions only that the former system should be used; he doesn't mention single-word quotations as a special category either.

I have seen perhaps a few authors who would use double for real quotations and single for ironic or similar short phrases or words; however, I think this system is not widely used. In fact I'd use it in Dutch, but not in English. It could be that there is some respected newspaper or publisher who would use it too, but I can't think of any.

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Wow, there are two systems in use? I didn't know that. In any case, I wondered because I only ever saw single characters being enclosed in single quotes, as in, 'A'; never for longer words like I've seen here for the titles of some questions. So to be clear, those needn't be corrected? –  Uticensis Mar 21 '11 at 4:50
    
@Billare: No need for correction if you ask me. It is just that Americans tend to use the second system, double inverted commas for ordinary quotes: that's why you see them more often. I'm not sure why you saw singles being used with single letters rather than doubles. I've always just regarded the difference as essentially arbitrary and I think I mostly happen to use double quotes for everything in English, nor particular reason. Am I an American deep inside after all? –  Cerberus Mar 21 '11 at 4:54

It's a usage I've seen, and which I favor, though I don't know of any style guides that particularly recommend it. Double-quote marks usually suggest that the author is wishing to attribute language to some other (possibly fictional) entity, which is a usage somewhat different from the notion of "denoting words as words", or--more broadly--suggesting that a group of letters and/or words should be parsed in something other than normal semantic fashion, but without attributing the expression to anyone but the author.

To my mind, whether or not a usage appeals to the authors of style guides, the fundamental question should be whether it clearly conveys the meaning and connotations intended by the author. If so, the usage is a good one, even if the authors of style guides find it distasteful. If not, the usage is a bad one, even if the authors of style guides would recommend it.

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