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My question is not about the use of quotation marks, single or double. It's about this paragraph from Wikipedia.

If quotation marks are used, it is sometimes the practice to distinguish between the quotation marks used for speech and those used for mentioned words, with double quotes in one place and single in the other:

  • When Larry said, "That has three letters," he was referring to the word 'bee'.

  • With reference to "bumbershoot", Peter explained that 'The term refers to an umbrella.'

I don't understand the use of quotation marks in the examples: 'bumbershoot' looks like a mentioned word to me and "the term refers to an umbrella" is speech. Have I missed something?

I understand that most people don't make such a distinction (single x double) but that is not what the question is about. It's all about coherence in the examples.

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    The article says singles may be used for a quote and doubles for mentioned words, or vice-versa. The examples show you both flavors. (If you're going to use this technique you should obviously settle on one flavor or the other, though.) – Hot Licks Oct 11 '15 at 22:54
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    Because you conflated two separate examples. Changing the given format can be as erroneous as changing the actual words used. – Edwin Ashworth Oct 11 '15 at 23:12
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    You didn't ensure that the result truly represented the original. I managed to correct that for you. You can't expect people to answer sensibly if they're not presented with an accurate version. 'Is there any incoherence in these examples ...?' The answer is yes, in your original posting; no, in the original article. – Edwin Ashworth Oct 11 '15 at 23:24
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    Why would anyone expect there to be consistency in punctuation examples from Wikipedia? – John Lawler Oct 11 '15 at 23:53
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    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it is obvious that Wikipedia is merely giving examples in the two available styles rather than using mixed styles in a careless fashion. – Edwin Ashworth Oct 12 '15 at 9:29
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What the examples are meant to demonstrate (and quite well, I think) is that (1) while there is no standard that dictates that words or speech must always be enclosed in one type of quotation mark or the other (2) for the purposes of analytical clarity, it helps to alternate between the two types to distinguish speech from highlighted words. The examples show that it doesn't matter if you decide that speech should be enclosed in single quotes and words in double quotes, or vice versa, but it's the act of alternating between the two (regardless of how you chose to split them) that provides analytical clarity. The reader quickly sees that one type of quote denotes speech and the other type denotes words.

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    Alternatively, you can use quotation marks (single or double, as your style guide or personal preference dictates) for quotations, and use italics for words used as words. This is the approach recommended by the Chicago Manual of Style, I believe, and it is certainly the one adopted by most of the U.S. publishers I've worked for. I can't recall any U.S. publisher I've worked for specifying that quotations should take either single or double quotation marks, and that words used as words should take the other type of quotation marks, to distinguish the two uses. – Sven Yargs Oct 12 '15 at 8:15
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    @SvenYargs Or even—as my own personal preference dictates—italics for words-as-words, single quotes for ‘air quotes’ or ‘scare quotes’, and double quotes for quotations. Almost entirely unambiguous, and quite aesthetically pleasing, to boot. :-) – Janus Bahs Jacquet Oct 13 '15 at 18:37
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Wikipedia doesn't mean that there's a specific rule as to when to use double and when to use single. It just means that in order to avoid confusion, people will use both to differentiate. They might use double for quotes and single for words or the other way around; what matters is that words and quotes are clearly distinguishable from one another.

  • From the Chicago Manual of Style Q. Can you distinguish when a single quotation mark is used versus a double quotation mark? I’m not referring to quotes within quotes, but about the use of single quotation marks closer to linguistic uses. I see both single and double quotation marks in instances seemingly for special meaning but not limited to linguistics. A. For nonspecialist texts, Chicago recommends double quotation marks for everything except quotations within quotations. The comma or period goes inside. – Zan700 Oct 13 '15 at 6:57
  • Here's the link to the Chicago Manual of Style chicagomanualofstyle.org/qanda/data/faq/topics/Quotations.html – Zan700 Oct 13 '15 at 7:09
  • The question was to explain the Wikipedia examples. Punctuation-wise the CMS may well be correct, but in this case it's irrelevent. – RoseofWords Oct 14 '15 at 1:51
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In the U.S. the single quote marks would only be used if you're marking a quotation (or a word/phrase that you want to single out) within a quotation. So "bee' would take double quotation marks or italics.

From the Chicago Manual of Style:

For nonspecialist texts, Chicago recommends double quotation marks for everything except quotations within quotations. The comma or period goes inside.

In the original post there is no mention of addressing U.K. and U.S. style in a single sentence. The poster asks if there is anything incoherent in that excerpt. The question is only about that paragraph, and its examples would be confusing unless you were previously informed of the intention to mix U.K. and U.S style in a single sentence.

  • The point of the two example sentences is that one uses U.S.-style double quotes around speech, and the other uses U.K.-style single quotes around speech. Wikipedia is not trying to say that both sentences would be acceptable in a single style. – sumelic Oct 12 '15 at 17:24
  • But in the U.S., it isn't the practice to distinguish between speech and other uses (an unusual word, let's say) by varying the quotation marks. If this is the practice in the U.K., it should be so indicated. To my knowledge, an indirect quotation (as in the second sentence) gets no quotation marks in the U.S. or the U.K., so if it's an example of U.K. practice, it's a bad example. – Zan700 Oct 12 '15 at 18:13
  • The second example is a direct quotation that is embedded into the grammatical structure of the main sentence. Varying quotation marks to distinguish between speech and other uses is not standard practice for either style, but it is a style that exists in the U.S. (I've seen it). – sumelic Oct 12 '15 at 18:32
  • I could find numerous examples but this is from the first site that Google found: The following examples illustrate some of the types of changes that you must make when you change a direct quotation to an indirect quotation. Type of Quotation and Examples 1. Direct quotation with quotation marks · The young couple said, "The price was too high." Indirect quotation: no quotation marks · The young couple said that the price was too high. college.cengage.com/english/raimes/digitalkeys/keyshtml/… – Zan700 Oct 12 '15 at 21:06
  • That's true. But the Wikipedia example is a direct quotation; that's why it is surrounded by quotation marks. The use of that does not always indicate an indirect quotation. – sumelic Oct 12 '15 at 21:11

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