January 17, 2013

Weekly Language Usage Tips: Momentarily & double or single quotation marks

Posted in momentarily, single or double quotation marks at 8:33 am by dlseltzer

Mea Culpa

A sharp-eyed reader noticed that in last week’s wlut, I contradicted my earlier words. Last week I said:

And when people have written about ‘about’ versus ‘around,’ they are writing about whether either can be used to mean ‘approximately.’

The party starts at about 9:00.

I am planning to go around 9:30.

NOTE: ‘Around’ and ‘about’ can be used this way BUT only in informal communication. They should never replace ‘approximately’ in formal or scientific writing.

The reader noticed that I had this to say, back in 2008:

For some reason, I decided that “approximately” was more appropriate than “about” in formal writing. It seemed more precise and more sophisticated–neither of which is true; it merely has more syllables. These days, I opt for simplicity and clarity, and tip 2 is this: When you mean “about,” use “about.” “Approximately” adds nothing but additional letters.

Ouch. For one thing, I would say expecting consistency over a span of five years is really expecting a lot. I’m thrilled if I maintain consistency over a span of five minutes. But I am actually quite pleased that this reader called me on this. Last week, I was quick to lump ‘about’ and ‘around’ together, and that was a mistake. After giving myself time to think about it, I think I was correct five years ago when I said to use ‘about’ when you mean ‘about.’

Just don’t use ‘around.’

Tip 1: Momentarily

A reader writes:

 My husband and I had an argument the other day about the use of momentarily: he used it to mean “for a moment,” and I corrected him saying the word means “in a moment.” He stood his ground and a quick Google search showed that his usage was the more accepted of the two! Really? I was wondering if you might elaborate on wlut.

Okay, we all know that language is fluid, and this is a good example of that. Strict prescriptivists will say that it means ‘for a moment,’ and should not be used to mean ‘in a moment.’ And to that, I say, “You clearly need something more to do to fill up your day.”

I informally polled a group of faculty and asked them how this word is used. Most voted for ‘in a moment,’ followed by both ‘for a moment’ and ‘in a moment.’ No one opted for ‘for a moment’ only. And that sounds about right. The days are long, long past when we used ‘momentarily’ to mean solely ‘for a moment,’ and most dictionaries include ‘in a moment’ as the second meaning (admittedly, some relegate such use to North America). There are a few sticklers out there who swear by the ‘for a moment’ meaning, but they should be spending their time looking for  their lives instead of worrying about this.

There are very few instances when the meaning isn’t made clear through the context of the sentence. So for our reader, I think a marital compromise is in order. Both meanings are ubiquitous and acceptable. Agree to that, and your argument will end momentarily.

Tip 2: Double or single quotation marks

A reader writes:

Your response leads me to another questions for WLUT.  You put a few words in single quotes.  I thought that you have previously said that it is “doctor” not ‘doctor.’  What is the right way to do this in formal writing?

The important lesson here is this: Do as I say and not as I do. I’ll explain why. When I first started writing the wlut lo these many years ago, I would send the email to lots of people who used lots of different browsers and email programs. For some reason, although several characters seem to act up in some of these programs, the most problematic, according to the folks who contacted me, was the double quotation mark which regularly appeared as another symbol, sometimes obliterating the remaining text. Based on this early feedback, I started using the single quotation mark as is didn’t mess up the writing as easily as the double quotation mark. After a while, it just became a habit, and that is why I sometimes use the single quotation marks in my other emails.

So what are the official rules? Well, the good news is that there are no real rules; it is really a matter of style. But there is convention, and the conventional wisdom is this (at least for American English):

1. Use double quotation marks to denote a direct quotation.

2. Use single quotation marks to denote a quotation within a quotation.

3. To indicate that a word is singled out or treated differently, in formal writing, surround it with double quotation marks.

4. In informal writing, it is okay to use single quotation marks to set a word apart.

5. In formal or informal writing, you can single out a word using italics or bold. The caution with this method is that you might encounter the same kind of issue I found with the double quotation marks—you might find a funky format in the final copy.

 Finally, why did I write ‘quotation mark’ when the reader wrote ‘quote’?

Although it is changing, I still think of ‘quote’ as a verb. Yeah, yeah, I know language evolves, and this is a good example of the evolution, I’m just not there yet. I use ‘quote’ as a noun in casual conversation all of the time, and I am sure I will use it that way soon enough in more formal communication. But, not yet.



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