If you are an American, using quotation marks could hardly be simpler: Use double quotation marks at all times unless quoting something within a quotation, when you use single. It's different in the greater Anglosphere, where they generally use singles in books and doubles in newspapers. It's still pretty simple, but nothing so straightforward as here.
Yet some of us don't seem happy with what we've got. For several years now in teaching writing classes to college freshmen, I’ve noticed some students adopt another rule: double quotes for long quotations, single quotes for single words or short phrases. They'll quote a long passage from Measure for Measure accurately, but when they want to quote one of Shakespeare's words, a cliché, or some dubious concept like "virtue," they'll go with single quotes.
It took me a while to understand what was going on, but after thoroughly studying it I developed a rigorous explanation for this staggering decline in standards: kids today.
But then I looked up from their papers to find this usage in the manuscript of a friend's novel. Then I saw them in another friend's manuscript—this time, of an academic book. Then I turned to the Internet and they were everywhere—in a local news story, in a paper by a college professor, in a blog on social marketing, in a blog on the education system, on the website of the Children's Literacy Foundation. In each case, the same short/single, long/double quote rule was followed.
Then I returned to my students' papers and saw it again, this time in the margins, flowing from my own fingertips—What have I become?!?
We misquoters are far from alone. I found a copy editor lamenting on her blog that "approximately 20% of the writing" she receives puts single quotes around "important concepts or key phrases."
The copy editor's post served to explain the rule, but I discovered that part of the reason this hybrid quote practice is spreading is that people aren't seeking experts. Instead of turning to print or online usage manuals, many turn to the same forums they'd trust for other questions: crowdsourced aides like Yahoo Answers. There they find reinforcement for their predispositions. It's a prescriptivist grammarian's authority-free nightmare.
Yet the answers given have their own logic. "Single quotes are used if you voice the person's thoughts," one writes. "Double are used for them speaking." In first person writing, another explains, "the story is being narrated by the talker, therefore they use ' because someone talking is being told by an actual person talking." They're for nicknames and song titles too.
On Yahoo, people vote on the best answer, and often the incorrect one wins. The majority gave thumbs down to that answer about songs, but it was the one deemed the "asker's choice." When another person asked when to use single quotes, someone answered that doubles are for dialogue and singles "for emphasis." "Thanks a bunch," the asker said, bypassing the correct answer, "such a clear-cut explanation." This process plays out repeatedly.
Many people cite a justification from Wikipedia: "To avoid the potential for confusion between ironic quotes and direct quotations, some style guides specify single quotation marks for this usage, and double quotation marks for verbatim speech." Really? I went to the library, where I found 38 different style and usage manuals. A few noted specialized disciplines like linguistics and philosophy that vary between double and single quotes. Only four briefly acknowledged hybrid usage. None recommended it. And sure enough, the statement on Wikipedia has been deleted for lack of citation, but it's still preserved on the simple English Wikipedia article, and several other places continue to quote it.
I asked Geoffrey Nunberg, a linguist at the University of California–Berkeley, about how people could develop this new rule. He explained a long-standing linguistic principle: "People just make shit up." Not just Yahoo answerers, he said, but grammarians as well. Not liking what they read, they invent "errors" like splitting infinitives. Conversely, these answerers make sense of what they often read and type by retrofitting a rule.
"A large part of what we know of punctuation practice," Nunberg added, "is just what we've sucked up in the course of reading." Most of us know the rule on single and double quotes, but many rules we follow aren't taught. You don't put two colons in a sentence, not because you were taught this but because you never see it done.
This regurgitation helps maintain written consistency, but it also might allow this change. We don't just absorb copy-edited prose but also that of blogs, Internet comments, and friends.
And how much attention do we pay when we're doing so? It’s clear the Yahoo answerers read widely, but many seem unaware of different customs across the ocean. They routinely describe quotation choice as entirely a matter of "personal preference" or "style." One writer says, "The only writer I know who uses the single quotations is Terry Pratchett. What a weirdo." He's British too.
But these hybrid quoters are not irresponsible. One writer recommends using single quotes to clearly differentiate between the words of a “a real or fictional entity” and those of “the author of the surrounding text.” A user of the forum Quora writes, "I use 'scare' quotes", to acknowledge that the word is not my own. It is inappropriate to use real quotes so I've started using single quotes."
They're reacting to a subtle quirk of quotation marks. As Harvard English professor Marjorie Garber has written, they "can convey both absolute authenticity and veracity … and suspected inauthenticity, irony or doubt." Hybrid users escape this paradox. Unlike some linguistic novelties—like labeling all books "novels"—this one could actually add useful nuance.
Yet I suspect the main driver of this use is a matter of simplification: the desire to avoid the shift key.
Linguists caution that linguistic change isn’t always about laziness, and the Cambridge Guide to English Usage suggests hitting shift to follow double quote style is "of small consequence among all key strokes used in typing a document." But several commenters cite labor-saving as a justification for singles, and I believe that's why I've found myself using them. When dashing off a quick word in a chat or marginal comment, I sometimes just don't work up the energy to reach for that shift key. One online commenter is surprisingly calculating about his usage preferences: "It's also one key-press cheaper for me to type a single as opposed to double-quotes (shift + quote key). I can also amortize the cost of the two key-presses out over longer phrases, which seems to justify the effort."
People type more now than ever before. We like to take it easy now and then, and hitting shift to capitalize or properly punctuate can sometimes feel like a hassle—if the most trivial in human history. The best counter to this usage might be a better keyboard.
Failing that, could there be a full-scale change in practice? Nunberg pointed out that fears about the Internet causing language decline are often about exposure to voices that used to be unheard. Variant punctuation has always existed, but the uniformity of printers and copy editors has hidden that fact, especially from future generations. Indeed, some online cite a usage guide by H.W. Fowler from 1908 that describes (without recommending) this exact practice of switching to single quotes "for isolated words, short phrases, and anything that can hardly be called a formal quotation."
A study of speech communities in Belfast, Ireland, might point to whether conditions are right for hybrid quotes to finally go mainstream. Doing fieldwork there in the ’70s, linguist Lesley Milroy observed that women in a small Protestant neighborhood would disseminate pronunciation differences they picked up while working across the barrier in the Catholic sector. She and her husband James Milroy later argued that such "fleeting encounters" with other speech communities are the typical drivers of linguistic change. Perhaps something similar occurs in our everyday experience online. Whether in absorbing others' practices or regularly avoiding the shift key, hybrid quotes could come home with us to more formal contexts.
It's already made some headway. I've found plenty of people with advanced degrees doing it, even when dealing with weighty subjects. You would expect this slippage to be thwarted by prestige publishers, but it recently appeared in a blog entry on the Washington Post.
It’s hard to see this hybrid usage gaining acceptance, however. If it has potential to add clarity, it still leaves plenty of ambiguity: When a word is in single quotes, is it being used as a word, ironically, or to quote someone else? Is that cliché in quotation marks for emphasis or because you think it's stupid? Look at a newspaper that routinely lets this practice slip in, like London’s Telegraph (contrary to its style guide), and you’ll find Fowler had it right a century ago when he noted that while hybrid quotations offer potentially "useful degrees in emphasis," in practice they are sure "to be inconsistently utilized."
People have good reasons not to hit shift, just not good enough to say goodbye to such a simple system. You can double quote me on it.