My paternal grandmother (heretofore called "Gran") ran a bookstore in Dalkey, Ireland, for many years. It was called the Exchange. Unfortunately, the Exchange closed down several years ago, but not before becoming an important part of my linguistic development.
Every package I received from Gran contained at least one book. All of these books were published in England and Ireland, which meant they followed the British system of spelling and punctuation. Therefore, as a young reader, the spelling and punctuation I most often encountered was British. Consequently, I spent much of my youth "incorrectly" spelling words and using "incorrect" punctuation as a student in the American system. I was roundly mocked by my fifth grade classmates for spelling "color" C-O-L-O-U-R in a spelling bee. I was favored to win said spelling bee prior to my embarrassing exit.
It should be noted that the British, in stereotypical arrogance, refer to words like "labor," "color," and "theater" as "American misspells."
Largely because I have not recovered from the horrific lexical scars of my childhood, I recently delved into the history of quotation marks in order to discover why Americans use a different system from the Brits. How did these systems develop? Why did they develop? Did one, simple standard that could have spared the mortification of a young, confused, Irish-American boy ever exist?
To set the scope of the study, here are some quotations from Simon Winchester's The Meaning of Everything: A Story of the Oxford English Dictionary. The sentences in bold are found in the book, and the sentences in italics are translations into the American system.
And then came Samuel Johnson, 'the Great Cham of Literature', and with him, the turning point.
And then came Samuel Johnson, "the Great Cham of Literature," and with him, the turning point.
Or, as another writer has it, 'whoever takes the credit for inspiring the Dictionary as a piece of scholarship, it is he who should receive it for maintaining the book as a business proposition'.
Or, as another writer has it, "whoever takes the credit for inspiring the Dictionary as a piece of scholarship, it is he who should receive it for maintaining the book as a business proposition."
Notice that the British use single quotation marks, and also place the punctuation outside of the quotation marks. It should be noted that I have found examples of the British putting punctuation within the quotation marks. I should also say that I have encountered British books that use double quotation marks. However, these books continue to place the punctuation outside of the quotation marks.
Thus far, it all seems utterly, hopelessly random.
As of right now, I have several resources at my disposal: an encyclopedia on the English language, a book titled Eats, Shoots, and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne Truss, and I recently ordered through Interlibrary Loan a book entitled Pause and Effect: Punctuation in the West by M.B. Parkes.
This is the project, dear reader: to uncover the hidden history of quotation marks in order to assuage my inner child's bafflement. More to come.