I was initially going to talk about current usage of quotation marks, also known as ‘speech marks’ or ‘inverted commas’, but I was curious about the origins of the marks themselves, so decided to do some research. However, rather than reinventing the wheel, so to speak, I found an excellent article which is an excerpt of author Keith Houston’s Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols, and Other Typographical Marks. If you want the details on quotation marks, then head to this link (click here) for a fascinating read. But I will endeavour to sum it up here.
Houston traces quotation marks back to the early Greeks at the Library of Alexandria in the second Century BC. Apparently, a librarian named Aristarchus was helping edit and clarify the library’s holdings, which at that time comprised handwritten papyrus scrolls. He used an arrow-type character (>) called a diple (double) to mark in the margins of text of noteworthy interest, and a ‘dotted diple’ to mark passages where he differed with the reading of other critics. Then the early Christian church came along and applied the diple to clarify the words of Jesus Christ and his disciples in scripture. Latin took over from Greek and parchment books replaced papyrus scrolls.
However, the diple and the double diple were given various jobs and were not applied consistently, and the marks were altered into various forms, including a dot placed in the wedge of the diple and the mark rotated into a ‘V’ with a dot cradled in the upraised arms. Thus, the traditional diple mark had disappeared by the end of the eighth century.
Handwritten books then gave way to the advent of printed material with the invention of the first movable type, and this had its effect on quotations. Printers experimented with different ways to handle quoted text — alternative typefaces, parentheses and so on. Some books did not even bother with distinguishing quotes.
The diple returned as double commas at the start of the 16th century, derived from the slanted virgule (/), used to indicate a brief pause. However, the mark was still applied to the margin against lines with quoted text though not precisely indicating the start and finish of a quote. Bishop John Fisher, in a work published in 1525, was the first to orient the commas so that they ‘opened’ towards the text. Commas in the outer margin of right-hand pages were set as normal, while those on left-hand pages were rotated 180 degrees or ‘inverted’.
But this was by no means the end of the story, as usage was haphazard and Latin quotations were often placed in italics which gave rise to the still current practice of using italics to highlight names and quoted or referenced material. Houston writes that it was around the end of the 16th century that quotation marks took two significant steps: inverted commas moved to the body of the text itself; and quotation marks were first used to indicate direct speech.
The arrival of the novel in the 18th century pushed the need for quotation marks further as novelists ‘quoted’ their characters’ speech with all its accents and slang intact. Writers started to indicate changes in speakers with paragraph breaks and explicitly opening and closing quotations. There was no more tackling the tedious task of placing quotation marks against each line. Printers cast the double quotes in single blocks of lead, doing away with the need to apply separate pairs of commas, and both America and England agreed on the practice of enclosing quoted text with matching pairs of opening and closing marks.
One would surmise that now the consistent usage of quotation marks was set in stone (or lead!) but Britain diverged from America’s use of double quote marks in the 20th century, opting for single marks for direct speech, while double quotes were relegated to reported speech.
And this is merely a brief summary of the article, which in itself has been condensed! I hope this helps you understand more about the quotation mark and what I am about to say about its current use.
Whether you decide to go with the American style of double quotation marks or the British style of singular ones, if the person you quote is in turn quoting someone else, then the internal quote will use the alternative mark, and that is singular used within speech that starts with double quote marks, and vice versa.