The quotation mark has its origin in Europe in the centuries before printing, when documents were copied by hand. It started out as something called a diple. That word comes from Greek diplous, “double”, and a diple was, at its simplest, a line bent in half to form an arrowhead, like this: >.
Diples were drawn pointing inwards from the margins, to indicate noteworthy text. Sometimes a single diple pointed inwards from the outer margin of the page; sometimes diples appeared in both margins:
> noteworthy text <
And because the copyists were usually monks, “noteworthy text” was often synonymous with “a quotation from the Bible”.
With the advent of printing, diples caused the printers problems. First of all, printing in the margins was awkward to do, so the diple symbol was often moved into the body of the printed text. Secondly, the printers didn’t have a piece of type that looked like a diple. So they pressed the humble comma into doing double duty as a diple substitute. To avoid any confusion with its usual role, they did various things to this diple/comma, sometimes in combination:
- Doubled it
- Raised it from the baseline
- Inverted it
(This last practice gave rise to the quotation mark’s alternative name in English—inverted commas.)
At the same time as they were experimenting with ways of replacing the diple, printers were also generalizing its use—rather than marking out quotations from the Bible, the new quotation marks were used to indicate all quoted text.
After all the experimentation had shaken down, Europe found itself with five different ways of arranging commas into quotation marks. The first was to open the quotation with a couple of commas on the baseline, and to close with a pair of raised, inverted commas:
That’s standard practice in much of Eastern Europe, as well as Denmark, Germany and Iceland.
The second was to open with raised inverted commas, and to close with raised commas:
That’s a familiar form for English speakers, and it has been adopted by a number of other languages, but it’s rare in Europe.
These two styles each have a variant that simply disposes of the inverted commas and uses ordinary commas instead. In parts of Eastern Europe the quotation is closed with a pair of ordinary raised commas:
The same style is used in Dutch.
And in Finland, Poland and Sweden, the opening quotation marks look just like the closing marks:The fifth style was championed by French and Italian printers. It originally featured a pair of mirror-image commas to open the quote, and a pair of regular commas to close it, both sets of commas raised half-way from the baseline.
It was visually pleasing, because it eliminated the large areas of white space created above or below the doubled commas in the other styles, but it did require a new character (the reversed comma) to be added to the printer’s font. Perhaps the precedent of creating a new character shook this style loose from the constraints of the original character set, because (unlike the other styles) it continued to evolve in appearance. It eventually turned into the set of angled brackets that are the fifth major quotation marks used in European languages—the guillemets, supposedly named after their creator, Guillaume, who is otherwise obscure.
As well as French and Italian, the guillemets are used by Russian, Norwegian, Greek and all the languages of the Iberian peninsula.
Some countries admit two different styles of quotation mark. In Germany and parts of Eastern Europe, reversed guillemets are seen as an alternative to the standard quotation marks, though they seem to be used only in decorative text in Germany.
Quite early in the development of quotation marks, British printers found another solution to the awkward expanse of white page that appears above or below double quotation marks—they used single quotation marks instead.
It’s a style that has persisted to the present day, with many British publishing houses using single quotation marks; British newspapers and magazines tend to use double quotes, however. And in the United States, double quotes are standard.
In English, if single quotation marks are standard, a quote-within-a-quote takes double marks; if double marks are used, the nested quote takes single marks. (Other languages vary in their approach to nested quotations—some simply repeat the same style of quotation mark; some switch to single marks; and some switch between guillemets and commas.)
The only problem for the British single quotation mark is that the closing quote is identical to the apostrophe, a punctuation mark used to signal either possession or omitted letters. But it’s usually pretty clear from context whether the reader has encountered a closing quote or an apostrophe.
So all was well … until the invention of the typewriter. The English keyboard economized on keys by using the same character for opening and closing quotes—symmetrical vertical strokes that came as single or double options, with the single quote doing double duty as an apostrophe.
These symmetrical quotation marks (called “straight quotes”) had never existed until they were invented to address the mechanical limitations of the typewriter. They carried over into the limited ASCII character set used by teletypes and early computers, and are still a standard feature of computer keyboards today, long after the mechanical and digital limitations that led to their creation have gone.
So—it’s a little awkward to insert proper opening and closing quotation marks when all you’ve got on your keyboard is straight quotes. I’m typing this with straight quotes at the moment, but you should be seeing proper opening and closing double quotation marks when you look at this web page. The web software I’m using is automatically converting the straight quotes I’m typing into what computer guys call “smart quotes”—actually just standard quotation marks, the only smart thing about them being that the software is working out whether to use an opening or closing quote according to the position in the text.
Trouble is, the software can get it wrong. In particular, if it sees a single straight quotation mark preceded by a space, it figures it’s looking at an opening quotation mark, and converts accordingly. So when I type:
The software works out that I mean:
Unfortunately, if I write a word with an initial apostrophe:
The software may still try to give me an opening quotation mark:
And I’ll need to go back and edit the document to get the apostrophe I want:
Now, software’s getting smarter. My web software seems to have become smarter in the last year and a half—it’s messing up my apostrophes and quotation marks much less often than it used to, because it now seems to be able to recognize common words that start with apostrophes. Whereas my old Microsoft Office 2007 is utterly steadfast in its opposition to the concept of an initial apostrophe.
So that’s inconvenient. But it also seems to have convinced some people that initial apostrophes should look like inverted commas, which is a little worrying. I’ve read a couple of books recently, from small publishing houses, in which all the initial apostrophes were upside-down—either they’re doing no proof-reading at all, or they’re convinced that their publishing software knows better than they do.
This problem reached an apotheosis, of sorts, with the American television comedy series, ’Til Death.* First of all, the writers seem to have had a misapprehension that “till” is an abbreviation of “until”—it’s not; it’s a perfectly regular word in its own right, with centuries of usage behind it. So that was bad. But then they believed their Autoformat settings:
At least for the first two years:
* Even my web authoring software couldn’t cope with ’Til. You’re seeing the apostrophe the right way up because I edited the html code by hand.