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?
Nunberg pointed out that fears about the Internet causing language decline are often about exposure to voices that used to be unheard. 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.
Variant punctuation has always existed, but the uniformity of printers and copy editors has hidden that fact, especially from future generations. 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.
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.
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).
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 But then I looked up from their papers to find this usage in the manuscript of a friend’s novel.