To a printer or publisher, inverted comma is the very precise name given to what English teachers often carelessly call a quotation mark or speech mark. Inverted commas are the signs ‛ and ’ (single inverted commas) and “ and ” (double inverted commas), placed high above the line of print rather than on it, as normal commas are. In handwriting and many computer fonts these normally show the curled shape of the ordinary comma - turned round at the beginning of a phrase, and normal at the end. In Primary schools, as children first learn to use them, they are often taught to call them 'sixty-sixes' and 'ninety-nines', which draws attention to their shape (shown to the right). (Don't call inverted commas
quotes in British academic writing, although journalists and printers often do. See also quotation and quote.)
The names "sixty-six" and "ninety-nine", rather than 'six' and 'nine', draws attention to the fact that the convention, before word-processing, was to use the double inverted comma to mark direct speech or quotation. This may well have been because a single mark in hand-writing (especially an untidy child's one, or, in the days of dip pens. splashes of ink) may be a mistake. A double one is usually unambiguous. In printing, and, nowadays, in word-processing, the convention in Britain is usually to use single marks. According to Quirk, 1985 in the USA, double inverted commas are more common (III 21). This can vary between different academic departments, publishers and so on (see House rules).
If you use a quotation inside a quotation, the practice is to alternate double and single, the outside pair of marks in your text being the number appropriate in your Department. For example,
- Professor Jones was quoting Shakespeare when she said, 'this is a question of "star-crossed lovers"' (in a Department where the convention is to use single inverted commas as the normal marker for quotation);
- Professor Jones was quoting Shakespeare when she said, "this is a question of 'star-crossed lovers'" (where the convention is to use double inverted commas).
- A problem with some kinds of software designed to detect plagiarism, such as TURNITIN, is that it only recognizes double inverted commas as acknowledging legitimate quotation. Material enclosed in single inverted commas is deemed to be plagiarised.
See also titles - of books, etc.