“Inverted commas”

From a recent article in The New Yorker:

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“Inverted commas” is in the category of Britishism for which there’s an exact American equivalent, like “advert” (“advertisement,” “ad”); in this case, it’s “quotation marks.” It’s actually more annoying than that because the whole notion of inverted commas doesn’t make sense in the U.S., where we use double quotation marks, like “this.” (The British single quotes, like ‘this,” do resemble upside-down commas.)

I would have thought this would be a one-off, but in The New Yorker alone, “inverted commas” have been mentioned several times in the past decade, by such writers as Adam Gopnik and Hendrik Hertzberg.

I say stop it now.

23 thoughts on ““Inverted commas”

  1. My memory of English lessons in the UK fifty plus years ago is that we were taught that inverted commas applied to both single and double quotation marks. Both look like inverted commas.

    Chambers defines it as “a set of double or single superscript commas used to introduce and close a quotation, the introductory one(s) being inverted.”

    1. Interesting. I was mistakenly thinking that “inverted” meant upside-down, but now I understand it means reversed. And of course that means the second (closing) one isn’t inverted after all. Curiouser and curiouser.

      1. But they are upside down. I remember at school we used to call them 66 and 99. (Possibly that was a mnemonic to remember which pair were inverted.)

        I also remember a teacher complaining about a student who’d used single quotation marks that they do that in books because printing ink is expensive. When we were writing for class, we were to use double marks. (I can’t remember if we were taught the convention of using single quotes to put a quotation within a quotation.)

  2. In the UK, the expression inverted commas is becoming rather rarer – the more modern style is to call them quotation marks. This possibly a little to do with online usage.

    Ta ta.

  3. In BrE quotation marks and inverted commas are two different things.
    Quotation marks are exactly what the name implies – reported speech e g
    My wife said ‘you clumsy idiot’ when I dropped a bottle on her foot
    Inverted commas tend to imply that the word or words they surround are
    not to be taken seriously e g Allied troops breach the ‘impregnable’ Atlantic Wall

      1. Exactly the same – either double or single marks. Sometimes both are called into use for reported speech within reported speech. e g
        Jim told me: ‘When I asked my wife to bring some logs in she replied ”Do it yourself”, so I did’

  4. It was a long time ago, but I have a feeling I was taught that double quotation marks were for quotations, and single inverted commas were for clarification, such as “I read ‘Alice in Wonderland’ in school”. I notice my keyboard has both. Curiouser and curioser indeed!

  5. “In the UK, the expression inverted commas is becoming rather rarer.”
    I haven’t noticed it; have you any evidence?
    As for Vernon’s distinction – inverted commas and quotation marks having different significance – it might have been a useful development, but this is the first time I have heard of it.
    (This question may have been answered here before, but: Why do so many not-one-offs appear in the New Yorker? Is that the insecure part of the border where these usages can steal through and become naturalized?

    1. Is that the insecure part of the border where these usages can steal through and become naturalized?

      Ha, most likely! You may already know how many well-educated, coastal Yanks just love highbrow things, or anything resembling such. And we all read the New Yorker; part and parcel of our Anglophila.

  6. “(The British single quotes, like ‘this,”[sic] do resemble upside-down commas.)”

    FYI, that’s a single and a double. As it’s presented as an example it’s probably worth correcting the typo.

  7. As an American I can say that I have never even heard of the term “inverted commas”… you learn something new every day I guess! In my school we say both “quotation marks” and “quotes”…. Now that I think about we say “quotes” more than anything. Then again I am from the south and we do everything funny compared to the rest of the country/world.

    Ex) “Underline the name of a novel and put quotes around the name of a short story”

  8. Single and double quotes actually have two different uses – as far as I know it’s not a British/American thing. The different uses seem to be occult to most people however…

    1. There is in fact a distinct British-American difference. In the U.S. we punctuate a quote “like this.” In the U.K., it’s ‘like this’. (Hence the term inverted commas.) And we also do the opposite for a quote within a quote!

  9. David Crystal in his book on punctuation Making a Point writes:
    And there were alternating usages to show a change of speaker:

    ”Are you ready?”
    ‘I am’
    ”Have you got the case?”
    ‘Of course’.

  10. I agree with Ben’s initial comment: There is no reason whatsoever for an American to use the term, unless it is to explain what it means to someone. There is no advantage to its use and it seems pretentious.

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