However much writers may disagree in style, you might reasonably think that English punctuation would by now — except in the works of deliberately ‘different’ authors or poets — be virtually standardized. You would be mistaken.
Look at the single quotation marks — ‘ and ’ — that I’ve placed around the word different. When I was young, I was taught a simple rule about the use of single or of double quotes. Direct quoted speech should be introduced and ended with double quotes: “I shall go home,” the woman said. In contrast, a phrase of direct quoted speech within a larger one should be given single quotes: “I shall tell my husband ‘if you prefer her, go to her’, and I’ll be happy when he does,” she said.
This led to another, less simple, distinction. If you are directly citing some phrase used by someone else, you can emphasize that fact by putting it in double quotes: So the minister thinks most politicians are honest, does he? I’ll tell him how many “honest” Lok Sabha members there are.
Put single quotes, however, if some word or phrase you are using is a peculiar one, or is being used in an odd sense, or maybe is a foreign word that hasn’t quite joined the English language. The gear that we used to call ‘overdrive’ in 1950s cars is nowadays simply the top gear. The billionaire’s ‘yacht’ is really more of a small cruise liner. He was excavating a ‘tell’ near Damascus. The word quotes which I’ve used several times should perhaps be marked off like this: it’s journalists’ slang for quotation marks.
Sometimes you may be unsure whether to use double or single quotes. If you’ve just mentioned that someone had been talking about the billionaire’s yacht, you might well use double quotes, not single.
Equally what is or isn’t an unfamiliar foreign word will often depend on who you are writing for, or where. Most archaeologists know that a ‘tell’ is a mound, possibly covering ancient ruins, in some Arab country. For such readers, you wouldn’t write a ‘tell’.
Most Indians, I imagine, know what a nullah is. Most Britons or Americans don’t. I happen to know what a ‘wadi’ is — the Arab version of much the same thing — from reading about the war in North Africa in the 1940s. But not many younger Britons (or Indians) would. So writing for Indians it wouldn’t cross my mind to write ‘nullah’, but in a British paper I’d put ‘nullah’ and ‘wadi’.
So far, so good, if not so very simple. But, alas, what I still think of as the rules about direct speech have been stood on their heads, over the past century or more, by many wholly reputable publishers of books or newspapers. They use single quotes, not double.
That produces a slightly tidier-looking text. But the corollary should be that they (unlike me) use double quotes for a direct-speech phrase within a large bit of direct speech. Yet very few of them do so. Equally, they have lost the useful double/single distinction between a quoted word and an odd or foreign word. They’d hardly write he was excavating a “tell” near Damascus, as logically they ought to. They use single quotes all through.
Does exact punctuation matter? Many people think not. But even in instances as trivial as these, I think it does. And you can quote me on that.