In the last entry, I stopped using double quotation marks and started using the single version. Some super-observant folks may have noticed but if you didn’t that’s also a good thing. Permit me to explain:
The final test for running text is legibility, so failing to notice would mean the style was not imposing on the text. The texture was good. When they occur, stylistic interruptions provide me with food for thought. If the punctuation interrupts the meaning, it demands fresh scrutiny. Double quotation marks seemed to interrupt by emphasising too heavily. Emphasis is sometimes required, but to my mind, with my style of writing, it seemed to impose on the text, altering the meaning by changing the silent voice in my head reading the text.
Legibility is subjective, and typographers can debate the nuances of style to achieve the best form until the end of time. However, context, typeface, and content are such varied beasts that trying to style them with one set of rules is unnatural, no matter how attractive it can seem. Whatever rules we follow, being consistent is a rule that’s truly universal. Knowing why we use a particular form is another. If we can’t justify a particular usage, the chances are we’ve probably not considered it enough.
Context is important here. American English is the lingua franca of web design, from the properties of CSS, to the majority of text we read. The best-selling handbook of American writing style, The Elements of Style by Strunk and White, only provides examples with double quotation marks followed by singles for quotations within quotations:
“This is a quotation with ‘another quotation’ inside it in the American style.”
However, I’m British. I live and work in the UK. In the UK, double quotation marks are also used, but there’s also a tradition of single inverted commas being used as the primary, with double inverted commas contained within them as needed:
‘This is a quotation with “another quotation” inside it in the British style.’
‘A more attractive appearance is achieved by using single quotation marks for the more frequently occurring quotations, and the double version for the less frequent occurrence of quotations within quotations.’
Robert Bringhurst advises us to:
‘Consider the face as well as the text when deciding which convention to follow in marking quotations.’
I agree with him but on the Web a face can change dramatically depending on the browser and operating system that’s rendering it. To my mind, we have to choose an optimal version — Safari in my case — and accept degradation after that. That’s also the case with other punctuation like spacing. I’ve just used hair spaces around the em dashes in the sentence before last, but you will see regular spaces unless you’re reading this using Safari — the only browser I know of that substitutes a hair space from the system fonts if one is not available from the specified face.
Different languages also have different quotation marks like guillemets («»), and baseline inverted commas used as left quotation marks („); they are in common use in Germany, , and Poland as Piotr Fedorczyk showed me recently. Punctuation within (or without) quotation marks is another topic altogether with a set of rules that depends on context and form. For example, American English puts commas inside. British English puts them outside depending on whether or not the comma (or full stop [period], or exclamation mark) is part of the quoted text.
My view is, whatever style we choose, we should know why, and be prepared change it if necessary. Any rules we apply should aid legibility. Web typography is immature; the constraints and opportunities of the medium may take us down many different paths but the goal of legible, beautiful text is constant.
Good typography in running text is subtle and ambient. It enhances the text without interrupting it. It delivers meaning with clarity. In books, speech is mainly quoted in single marks. It’s a light touch. The typography removes itself from the picture being painted in our minds, and by doing so, allows it to shine. I’d like to achieve the same kind of light touch, here. I doubt my text will shine, but at least the typography will not distract you from my thorny prose.