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Indispensable symbol used for punctuation in various modern languages of Indo-European descent. Unfortunately also the work of Satan; its name alone suggests the sinister.


Here is a simplified list of legitimate uses of the inverted comma:

  • To indicate abbreviation:
    Didn't anyone tell you? It's the end of the world!

  • To indicate the possessive:
    Matthewb's dog can do tricks.

  • To indicate a short quotation:
    'Unfortunately also the work of Satan' - Matthewb.

  • To indicate speech:
    'These uses all have examples', said Matthewb.

    (I understand the US convention to be the use of double inverted commas here)

  • As pointed out by Gritchka: in technical areas like philosophy: to indicate the word qua string:
    The word 'word' has four letters.

  • Finally, to indicate the use of slang in a piece of writing:
    The benefits of having a non-'techie' member of staff on the panel were recognised.
  • Occasionally, you see a sign in a shop and someone has mistakenly used an inverted comma in the plural form of a noun where it makes no sense at all:

    Potato's - ten bob a sack.

    This is, of course, an entirely forgivable error. After all, we all make mistakes. This behaviour does not reflect upon the personality of whoever wrote the sign.

    There is, however, a far more loathsome abuse of this symbol. It is in evidence wherever there are amateurish leaflets or middle management memoranda to be produced and defies all explanation. I refer, of course, to the inappropriate use of the inverted comma to imply some kind of ironic emphasis. Butchered in this way, my opening paragraph would read like this:

    'Indispensable' symbol used for punctuation in 'various modern languages' of Indo-European descent. Unfortunately also 'the work of Satan'; its name alone suggests the 'sinister'.

    You cannot infer what meaning the people who practise this art were trying to convey. It is a plain text equivalent of randomly dropping <em> tags into an html document. It also detracts from the authority of a piece of writing, suggesting that the originator somehow meant something other than that which s/he said or was actually intending to be ironic.

    From time to time, you meet someone who is so obsessed with this abuse of the inverted comma that he has breathed life into it such that it might burst forth from the page and hijack his forefingers, thereafter positioning them on either side of his head to be bent in unison whenever he utters a comment he considers to be salient.

    This problem does not seem to be documented anywhere. I therefore propose that those who share my pain attempt to educate offenders by replying to their correspondence in a way which illustrates their irritating habit and leaves them confused:

    Dear 'Mr' X,

    I received your 'letter', and you can be 'sure' that I have taken your comments into account. 'In no way' was I confused by your use of language; I will 'certainly' be acting upon your 'suggestions'.

    Yours 'sincerely',

    It has been pointed out to me (thanks mblase), since writing this node that the inverted comma is also known as the apostrophe and the rather more clumsy single quote. This is quite correct. Kids call them speech marks.

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