Simanaitis Says

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THE QUOTATION MARK is the anonymous hero of written clarity. As described in Keith Houston’s entertaining Shady Characters, it is “quietly competent, thank you very much, and would like to be left alone to get on with it.”

Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols, and Other Typographical Marks, by Keith Houston, W.W. Norton & Company, 2013.

This punctuation has appeared here before at Simanaitis Says in MAY I “QUOTE” YOU ON THAT? Today, I add tidbits on quotation marks gleaned from Houston’s book, together with a bit more Internet sleuthing.

Origin with Diples. Houston writes, “The germ of the modern quotation mark lies in a symbol that has lurked in the background throughout this book…. the diple, or ‘double,’ (>) was placed alongside a line to indicate some noteworthy text…” 

A diple sets off a line in this papyrus scroll from the first century. Image from Shady Characters.

Printed Quotes. “Printing,” Houston writes, “as has been seen in previous chapters, fundamentally and permanently changed writing and punctuation.” Forget time-consuming illuminations and oddities of separating quoted material.

Novels Helped. Houston writes, “When the inevitable pruning came, the impetus to standardize the use of quotation marks originated in the eighteenth century’s newest form of literature, the novel.” In particular, this genre had plenty of dialogue, as well as the previous needs for stressing one thing or another.

Dialogue in an eighteenth-century novel. Image from

Continued Quotes. When a quoted passage extends into more than one paragraph, standard American usage begins the subsequent paragraph normally, but omits the intermediate quotation mark of the preceding paragraph. 

Purely as a typographical quirk here at Simanaitis Says, I break with standard usage and include that intermediate one. To my eye, the quoted paragraphs look odd without it. 

Nested Quotes. Different symbols are used to avoid confusion of quotes within already quoted passages. American usage: “When asked whether he smoked, he said, ‘I don’t know. I never looked.’ ”

Quote Marks Around the World. Wikipedia offers an extensive list of quotation mark usage, among them, Afrikaans (American-like: “… ” primary, ‘…’ secondary); Basque («…» primary, ‹…› secondary, following French practice); English U.K. (‘…’ primary, “…” secondary); German („…“ primary, ‚…’ secondary); and Welsh (same as English U.K.)

Scare Quotes. Quotation marks are useful in identifying “so-called” things, often employed in irony: These “jumbo” shrimp simply aren’t. 

Definition Quotes. Related to scare quotes are those used in introducing words, perhaps used in a technical manner. This introduces “desmodromic” valves to set them apart from the ordinary “poppet” variety.

Section Identification. Often, quotation marks are used to identify a book chapter, a story in a collection, or a song in a musical: “The Chase—First Day” in Moby-Dick; or, The Whale. “The Greek Interpreter” in The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. “I Could Have Danced All Night” in My Fair Lady.

This reminds me of the Sherlockian penchant for differentiating the Canon’s short stories from its novels. For example, it’s “A Scandal in Bohemia,” but A Study in Scarlet.

Image from

Air Quotes. Last, let’s not forget “air quotes,” finger-defined gestures encasing an utterance: Click, click; you know what I mean? ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2020 

3 comments on “QUOTE MARKS REDUX

  1. sabresoftware
    September 14, 2020

    There’s also “Guillemets ‘<>’ ” used in French and some other languages. It’s easy to conceive that over time ‘<<‘ morphed into ‘ “ ’ or as the French might say: “ < < transformé en ”.

  2. sabresoftware
    September 14, 2020

    That’s not what I wrote, but somewhere along the way the html translated into what appeared.

    Basically Guillemets are single or double Chervron pairs that serve the same purpose as our quote marks.

    To send my original comment without it getting mangled like it did I’d have to use the special character encoding that ensures that HTML presents as intended. I don’t have those codes at hand so my “witty” comment instead ended up as incomprehensible gibberish.

    • simanaitissays
      September 15, 2020

      Hi, sabresoftware,
      Rest easy. I was in a similar html fix when I wrote about the mathematical terms “less than” and “greater than.”
      My finally adopting the WordPress Block Editor solved the problem in the website’s text.

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