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December 28th, 2005

Whatever or what ever / single and double quotation marks

by Barbara Wallraff

Adrien Williams, of Washington, D.C., writes: “My friends think I’m nuts to take on the Smithsonian, but the title of a recent exhibit there strikes me as blatantly grammatically incorrect. The title is ‘Whatever Happened to Polio?’ Shouldn’t it be ‘What Ever’?”

Dear Adrien: Questioning decisions that powerful institutions have made is an American tradition! And the question you’re asking is a good one. I even share your preference for the spelling “what ever” in that title. All the same, you don’t have an open-and-shut case against the Smithsonian. Many sources of language information, including most dictionaries, will tell you that “whatever” and “what ever” are interchangeable in sentences like that exhibit title.

Other sources, though, do distinguish between the two forms. For example, a usage note in the Oxford American Dictionary reads in part: “In the sentence ‘I will do whatever you ask of me’ (in which whatever = anything), ‘whatever’ is correctly spelled as one word. But in the interrogative sense (what ever was Mary thinking?) … it should be spelled as the two words ‘what ever.’”

Choosing the one-word form when you mean “anything” -- and the two-word form when you mean “what in the world” -- seems painless to me. People who are careful about their writing distinguish between such other pairs as “any one” and “anyone,” and “every day”and “everyday.” Why give up on “what ever”?

So let’s keep using the two different forms to indicate the difference between the meanings. If we start writing “whatever” no matter what, some people -- such as you! -- will think we’re ignorant.

Adele Meyer, of St. Clair Shores, Mich., writes: “Other than when you have a quote within a quote, is there any time when you should use single quotation marks instead of double quote marks? Someone corrected a business article I wrote in which I used double quotes to indicate links on our Web site. For example, ‘Click on “Members Only” and then click on “Buyers Guide” to locate supplier members.’ Should those be single quotes?”

Dear Adele: No, they shouldn’t. You had it right. Professionals in a few realms -- for instance, linguistics and horticulture -- do use single quotation marks in specialized ways. Many newspapers use single quote marks instead of double ones in headlines. But that’s because headline type is big, and double quote marks take up extra space that might be better used for an extra letter or two. Merrill Perlman, the copy chief of The New York Times, told me the custom may even go “back to days when type was hand-set and papers had limited numbers of characters in the larger headline fonts and sizes.” That is, papers risked running short of big quote marks unless they doled them out sparingly.

One more exception: Standard practice in most English-speaking places other than the United States and Canada is the reverse of ours. Writers in the United Kingdom, for instance, use single quote marks first and break out the double quote marks only for quotes within quotes.

It’s asking for trouble, though, to decide that the Internet is a different realm, where the conventions of standard American English don’t apply. When you’re writing for or about the Internet, there’s every reason to keep following the same punctuation rules you ordinarily do.

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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