Take the 2-minute tour ×
English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

American English uses double-quotes, while British English uses single-quotes:

"This is a quote."

'This is a quote.'

Why do we use different quotation marks? When did this difference originate? Were quotation marks not standardized until relatively recently?

share|improve this question
    
The only why question which I want to know is why people keep asking why American English and British English does this or that thing differently. It is not like you can get an answer to almost any of these, just non-constructive muddles and meanders. –  tchrist Jan 7 '13 at 3:16
    
I'm sure Webster had something to do with this. –  simchona Jan 7 '13 at 3:19
7  
Looking at an 1813 copy of Pride and Prejudice, printed in London, you find double quotation marks. So clearly, the Americans stuck with tradition while the British decided to change things. A book from 1766 does without any kind of quotation marks, so quotation marks may not even have been introduced until relatively recently. –  Peter Shor Jan 7 '13 at 3:26
7  
@tchrist: No muddle. To corroborate Peter's example, the demarcation point was the War of 1812. The embargo of American ports, among other hardships, resulted in a scaling back of the lead trade to the former colonies, which in turn encouraged the practice of shaving off the extra quote marks in printers cases. The end of the war was settled by the Treaty of Ghent: no reparations were levied on either side, the practice of single quotes remained, and the British have forgotten the altercation entirely. –  Mitch Jan 7 '13 at 4:29

2 Answers 2

up vote 5 down vote accepted

Posted by one Dave Richards on Grammar Girl

It is a fallacy to claim that standard British English uses single quotation marks first and doubles only for quotes embedded in quotes. This is indeed the case with novels, but all other publications use double quotation marks first and singles for nested quotations.

As a Brit, I agree. I don't see a lot of single quote marks in print. But I don't read many novels.

The British preference for single quote marks in novels is simply because novels often have a lot of reported speech. Why clutter the page up with twice as many of the ubiquitous little ticks?

We use single quotes just the same as Americans when it means 'so-called', for example. We just listened to Henry Fowler's sensible suggestion (in 1908) that we should reverse the then-dominant "single quotes within double quotes" convention for nested contexts. But only for things that are likely to need it (basically, novels).


EDIT: Comparing British and American instances of what they call a in Google Books (where it's often followed by a "quotated" term), I don't see any clear-cut tendency for either corpus to favour single or double quotes, so I'm not particularly defending that point. It seems to be a 'personal' rather than 'national' stylistic choice (but I admit mixing the two as here doesn't look good! :)

share|improve this answer
3  
That Grammar Girl column may also answer the question: it says that in 1908, Fowler recommended a change to single quotation marks in his The King's English. –  Peter Shor Jan 7 '13 at 3:44
    
@Peter: I was checking it out and adding it while you were commenting! –  FumbleFingers Jan 7 '13 at 3:55
2  
Actually, this American always uses double quotation marks for "scare quotes", and I don't think I've ever seen anyone else do it differently. –  Marthaª Jan 7 '13 at 4:11
2  
We even do "air-quotes" with two fingers on each hand. –  Jim Jan 7 '13 at 4:13
    
@Martha: Well, Time Magazine is a typical US publication, and they use single quotes for TIME’s No. 1 Song of 2012: No, It’s Not ‘Gangnam Style’ –  FumbleFingers Jan 7 '13 at 4:24

Disclaimer: I could be wrong.

I had always believed that double quotes for quotation marks serves to disambiguate the apostrophe.

"What's the difference between using single and double quotation marks/inverted commas?"
vs.
'What's the difference between using single and double quotation marks/inverted commas?'

In other words, I do not think it's necessarily another Americanism/BrE issue.

(Amazing revelations from @Mitch and @PeterShor in the comments at OP acknowledged.)

share|improve this answer

Your Answer

 
discard

By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.