Monday, December 3, 2012

Always Hug Your Single Quote Marks.

My childhood cat loved to hide under the sofa and lie in wait for passing ankles. An unsuspecting victim would cross the living room, minding her own business, until aaackk! Jaws shot out like a moray eel and sank her fangs into another tender tootsie.

As a copy editor for the Wild Rose Press, Inc., I relive this experience in the manuscripts I review. There I go, reading along serenely, until aaackk! a typo jumps out and bites me. Or a punctuation glitch or, too often, a dangling participle.

Everyone has seen warnings and wagging fingers about common errors, but that doesn’t stop typos showing up every day in fresh submissions. Among the ones I see most often are errant single and double quotation marks.

Single quotation marks are a shy and nervous critter. In almost all cases, they’ll only show up when hugged by double quote marks. If your character’s dialogue repeats someone else’s words, put the other person’s words in single quote marks. The only other appropriate places for single quotes are around names of horticultural cultivars or in specialized linguistic writing.

For submitting to the Wild Rose Press, Inc., single quote marks belong inside a double quote mark hug (American style). Without the shelter of the double quote marks, the single quotes aren’t happy! (And nor will your editor be.) Don’t Use Them Alone. EVER. I’m begging you.

WRONG: Mrs. Blake heard someone say ‘Boo!’

RIGHT: Mrs. Blake raised an eyebrow at the class. “Who said, ‘Boo!’?”

WRONG: In her essay, Janice described Mrs. Blake as the ‘best’ teacher in the school.

RIGHT: In her essay, Janice described Mrs. Blake as the best teacher in the school.

Or for emphasis, Janice could use italics, thus: the best teacher...

Double quotation marks are best saved for dialogue. It’s correct to use them as scare quotes to set off a word or phrase in a sentence, but that often puts people’s teeth on edge. Scare quotes are not recommended, not if you’re sending a story to me, at least. (Other TWRP editors may have no problem with them. Perhaps they’ll offer opinions in the comments section below.) Proverbs and common phrases don’t need quote marks, unless they’re spoken in dialogue.

WRONG: Justin was the proverbial “rolling stone,” tooling around the country on his motorbike.

Notice the comma inside the final quote mark (American style).

RIGHT: Justin was the proverbial rolling stone, tooling around the country on his motorbike.

By putting quote marks around a word or phrase outside of dialogue, you’re telling the reader Don’t believe me! Scare quotes are meant to signal an ironic or nonstandard usage of a word; they do not signal emphasis. Scare quotes examples:

Celia picked up her daughter for some “quality time.” (Correct only if she plonked the kid in front of the television.)
Our company provides “health care.” (Correct only if it makes you sick.)
“Farm fresh eggs” for sale. (Correct only if they’re a year old, from factory chickens, and not actually eggs.)

For more useful and entertaining tips on quote marks, dangling participles, and many other writing topics, you can visit some of my favorite blogs.

Edittorrent Two professional editors discuss writing problems and how to fix them. Check out their series of rants on dangling participles.

Flogging the Quill A professional editor offers online critiques of first pages sent in by brave volunteers. His explanation of show vs. tell is brilliant.

Romance University Experienced authors and editors contribute articles on all aspects of writing and publishing. Cherry Adair’s recent post describes her process for creating three-dimensional characters.

Savvy Authors Writers helping writers.

Eilidh MacKenzie - Editor  


Anonymous said...

Definitely with you on the scare quotes issue, Eilidh! (or should I say "scare quotes"? :) There's even a blog devoted to the subject: The "Blog" of "Unnecessary" Quotation Marks.

GiniRifkin said...

Dear Eilidh:

Thank you for the informative post, and the referral to four great websites. Because, learning, growing, and making each new book better than the last is a very important to me, this type of information is golden.

Gini Rifkin

Margaret Tanner said...

Hi Eilidh,
That was a very informative blog, I think I have to plead guilty to some of those quotation mark boo-boos on my first couple of manuscripts, but I am getting them under control now.