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Background

This website has had a fair share of questions on the use of single versus double quotation marks. The most popular question on this topic is a good resource on their use in American and British English.

To summarize, American English mostly uses double quotes and reserves single quotes for specific use cases, while British English theoretically prefers single quotes, though this is not necessarily the case in practice.

Question

However, I have noticed a pattern in the way some people use single and double quotes which is not mentioned in any of the style guides referenced in the question I linked to. Some people seem to use single quotes when quoting a single word or a phrase, and double quotes for anything longer than that. This would look like the following example.

While Alice said that this constitutes ‘proof’, Bob insists that “more evidence is needed before a conclusion can be confidently reached”.

I am not the only one to notice this use pattern. In his answer to the question I linked to above, a user called “mafu” notes that

I found that in practice single marks are commonly used for single words or short sentences while double marks are used to denote longer passages of text.

Is this a legitimate thing? Is there any style or grammar guide that recommends or accepts this?

More Details

I was trying to figure out the origin of this use pattern.

A user called “jbelacqua” explains in a comment that he/she does this because he/she feels that, since double quotes require more effort to input on a keyboard, they befit longer quotes which justify that effort.

Also, this use pattern might have been inspired by programming, as discussed in this question. However, that refers to quoting single versus multiple characters, so I’m not sure if that could have carried over to quoting single versus multiple words.

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    My initial reaction is that quoting single-words is often either more about resolving use-mention than "really" quoting someone's words, or putting the word in "scare" quotes. Whether that has much/any bearing on different quoting styles I don't know...
    – TripeHound
    Nov 25 '20 at 16:11
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    No. I try to use double quotes for direct speech and single quotes for every other usage, but it can get complicated, especially when quoting direct speech written in a passage by someone else. 'Scare [etc?] quote' usages, and these include offsetting unusual words or senses of words, and catchphrases say, most of which are short, are in my experience given using single quotes. Nov 25 '20 at 16:12
  • I'd say if anything there should be a tendency to apply the opposite principle. I see far more "Quotes within quotes" contexts where the outermost text (which by definition must be longer than any "contained" quoted material) is enclosed in double quote marks, and the embedded quote uses single quotes. And that makes sense to me, because the double quote feels "stronger / more conspicuous", so it's entirely natural that it should terminate the entirety of any text involving any quote marks at all. And an x within an X beats an X within an x for me every time. Nov 25 '20 at 18:12
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    Broadly-speaking my British English experience/usage understands that double quotes indicate words spoken by someone whereas single quotes generally draw attention to the fact that a word(s) are being used in a special way. That said, it's quite common to find novels in which neither kind of quotation mark is used. A less-punctuated method of indicating speech can be confusi is clearer and simpler to read when done well.
    – Dan
    Jun 25 at 14:05
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    Oops, forgot to answer the question - no, I have never noticed the length of a quote being the reason for single or double quote marks.
    – Dan
    Jun 25 at 14:08
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We were unable to find any style guide which suggests exactly this. It seems that there are only a few cases of individuals who do it because they come from a programming background or for other reasons.

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  • And therefore choosing to employ this device would be to espouse the non-standard, and open oneself to being considered eccentric at best, perhaps careless; clarity may even be compromised as many might expect more common usages and misinterpret accordingly. Jul 1 at 11:22
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Is there any style or grammar guide that recommends or accepts this?

There’s nothing I’m aware of that exactly fits the approach you describe, but two style guides come close.

I do freelance editing for a major UK-based content (marketing) company. Their style guide requires that direct speech is to be enclosed in double quotation marks, and “Use single quotation marks for words and phrases that aren’t actually quotations.”

The Guardian’s style guide has a very detailed explanation of how quotation marks are to be used. Again, not exactly what the question describes, but fairly close:

Use double quotes at the start and end of a quoted section, with single quotes for quoted words within that section. Place full points and commas inside the quotes for a complete quoted sentence; otherwise the point comes outside – “Anna said: ‘Your style guide needs updating,’ and I said: ‘I agree.’” but: “Anna said updating the guide was ‘a difficult and time-consuming task’.”

And…

Use double quotation marks for words that aren’t actually quotations, for example: These are the people who put the “style” in style guide.

It’s always important to keep in mind that there’s no “correct” approach to punctuation: while there are accepted conventions, all punctuation is a matter of style, and any convention can be altered or even dispensed with. The more important considerations are (1) does my punctuation style meet my objectives (whether informative, hip, technical, informal, artistic or something else) in presenting my words to the reader; and, perhaps more importantly, (2) am I meeting the requirements of my publisher?

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    What I described might have started as a misinterpretation of this.
    – hb20007
    Jul 1 at 14:33
  • @hb20007 Understood. I’ve updated my answer to reflect this and to add another example. What you describe seems to fall neatly between these two approaches! :-) Jul 1 at 14:38
  • But other guides differ markedly. No wonder the 'Guardian" once had such a reputation for a different approach to English. Jul 1 at 14:42
  • @edwin indeed. But I’m simply responding to the question of whether there’s any style guide that does this, and I offered two that come close. In fact I usually VTC any question about style as inherently POB, but a VTC seems pointless when there’s an accepted answer and a bounty. Plus, I wanted to provide an alternative to the other answer’s jarringly categorical assertion that there are “only a few cases of individuals who do it”. Jul 1 at 15:09
  • But, as the raison d'être of ELU is to find, analyse, catalogue and promote sound practice, I'll reiterate: '[C]hoosing to employ this device (as spelled out by OP) would be to espouse the non-standard, and open oneself to being considered eccentric at best, perhaps careless; clarity may even be compromised as many might expect more common usages and misinterpret accordingly. ' Jul 1 at 15:19

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