Pity the poor abused pair of punctuation marks we call single quotes. Though half of the pair doubles as an apostrophe, as a team, they perform only one function. Only one. It's a simple function, easy to describe, just as easy to grasp. Some rules of punctuation have potentially confusing variables. This isn't one of them.
Single quotation marks are only, ever for quotes within quotes.
That's it. Any other use is 100% incorrect. Period.
Here's this snappy little SWAT team in action:
"I couldn't believe my ears," gushed Louise, "when Professor Hornswoggle made his announcement to the class. 'Good news!' he shouted, 'No homework tonight.' We all started screaming for joy." Louise's parents were skeptical.
Here's what alien language expert Dr. Petunia LaRue had to say about the strange new sounds. "It's fascinating. Most aliens say things like, 'errrgh-hoppa-hoppa-muuutsi,' but these little guys are more likely to say, 'hixta-mixta-lalalalah.' It's a language that's new to our research." No doubt, there will be more discoveries to come.
Please note, I never suggested these examples would be engaging reading. Nevertheless, behold the elegance, the simplicity, and the stunning clarity of correctly used single quotation marks. They're not the star players of punctuation. Theirs is a humble task. Most days they sit on the bench, waiting, ever ready to swing into action when their particular specialty is called for. But when they go to work, they remove all doubt as to their value, bringing sense to potentially confusing sentences. Why use them for any other purpose when their job is so beautifully specific? After all, punctuation is our friend. It exists for the sole purpose of supporting effective communication.
But ah, here comes that good old legendary American ingenuity again, always so creative, always finding fresh new ways of doing things, even when the existing ways are perfect. Add to that this generation's baffling belief that everything is open to personal, individual interpretation and you have the strange and appalling trend of using single quotation marks in place of . . . quotation marks.
It's happening more and more, and not just in casual correspondence. Oh no, my friends. You will now see single quotes appearing around titles in magazines and on websites, around catch phrases on billboards, and even—God save us—in newspaper headlines.
What gives, I ask you? Was there anything unclear about regular old quotation marks? Was there, at any time, the slightest, faintest, merest shred of doubt about their meaning? Did we not all, as readers of English, understand that quotation marks—the normal ones, made up of two little slashes on each side of words—indicated quotations? Was there an issue? Pray, tell. Were they deemed offensive in some way? Burdensome? Unreliable? Did they require too much ink?
It's often argued that language evolves. It's a statement one would be foolish to debate; obviously, language should—and does—evolve. But The Curmudgeon believes there's evolution that springs from linguistic necessity, and evolution that results from boneheaded laziness, childish resentment of protocols, and a complete lack of interest in accuracy. Previous generations had no need for the phrase, "cyberbullying," so it didn't exist. Today, the phrase is needed. Its creation is a good example of the proper evolution of language. But abusing a perfectly efficient system—like full quotation marks for quotes and single quotation marks for quotes within quotes—is de-evolution. It reduces clarity and weakens communication, turning sense into nonsense.
This is not linguistic evolution. It's another case of erroneous practices, repeated until they become the norm. And then, suddenly, people are offended when someone corrects them.
But friends, you can help. Stop perpetuating the error, and perhaps there's still hope for the embattled single quotation mark. Look, these guys have only one job. They do it really well. But they need your support. A little respect for the single quote, if you please.