The history of the quotation mark
2001-12-08 01:00:00 UTC
This morning, me and my father set about trying to find out when quotation marks had started being used in English. We came to the conclusion that people had started using them sometime at the end of the seventeenth century or the beginning of the eighteenth century. We arrived at this answer simply by looking through a few old texts.
It's more interesting than a simple date though. While looking through these texts we found a variety of techniques and styles used to mark speech. Some texts simply rendered quotations in italics. Other texts used no marks at all. Which parts were speech had to be inferred from either a clause in the sentence such as "he said" or from just looking like something a character would be saying. Le Morte Darthur is a good example of this. It contains long paragraphs in which several people may speak and various events may happen with nothing to separate them.
After quotation marks were introduced, there was some interesting behaviour with regard to line and paragraph breaks. Where a quotation spans multiple paragraphs, the most commonly-used style today places an opening quotation mark at the beginning of each new paragraph, but only places a closing mark at the end of the quotation. We saw some texts today in which that same pattern was used for line breaks, so, within a paragraph, there was an opening quotation mark at the beginning of every line of a quotation which spanned multiple lines. This even applied where a word had been hyphenated across a line break, so the quotation would be opened, the line would end with the first half of the word and a hyphen, and the next line would begin with an opening quotation mark and the rest of the word.
For the French, things were even more complicated. They didn't adopt the quotation mark until much later, and then with some rather different conventions about its use. In some cases, the quotation marks would surround the whole sentence which represented a quotation, including the words which said "he said". But that was just a simple case. We were thoroughly mystified by some of the French texts we encountered, and could not figure out what the marks were indicating.
We had fun observing various other typographical and language features as well... The spacing around colons, "&c.", ligatures between c and t, the florid use of typefaces in the 1800's, and so on.
After going through all this, and after some work on my grandfather's poetry this evening, I find myself feeling quite infuriated by the people who say that punctuation should be inside quotation marks, or that nested quotation marks should alternate between double and single marks. There's a long, rich history of typography which people ignore when making these arbitrary rules. I have nothing against conventions, and, of course, I have my own preferences on many of these matters, but to act as if we have reached the end of this evolution or as if this evolution never happened and these rules emerged fully-formed from the pages of The Elements of Style is both ridiculous and dishonest.
Typography is a wonderful thing because of its history, its cruftiness, its contradictions and vagueness. Let us not forget that.