Accessibility of quotation marks

Publication date
Thursday 9 February 2023

Double quotation marks or single quotation marks – is one more accessible than the other?

Language and style evolve over time. It is part of our job to make sure the Australian Government Style Manual (Style Manual) considers these changes. Things we need to consider include:

  • the implications of changing established convention
  • which changes will settle and which ones will flip-flop
  • evidence to support our decisions.

Recently we reviewed the long-standing Australian Government convention of using single quotation marks for direct speech and certain titles of works (song titles for example). Double quotation marks are only used in 2 ways:

The convention to use single quotation marks exists from at least the first edition of the Style Manual, published in 1966. Every subsequent edition of the Style Manual has retained it.

The alternative is to adopt the American style of using double quotation marks.

Quotation marks and accessibility

We became aware of concerns about the accessibility of single quotation marks. Specifically, how screen readers announce single quotation marks to their users. We decided to review our style to understand whether we should move to double quotation marks to improve the accessibility of government content.

We wanted to know:

  • how popular screen readers announce single and double quotation marks, for both default and optional settings
  • if there is evidence of users being unable to access and understand content because of this issue
  • what style do expert accessibility practitioners and users of screen readers recommend.

The experts recommend

We worked with accessibility specialists Andrew Arch and Neil Jarvis from Intopia. Every 2 years, Intopia conducts a survey of assistive technologies across platforms.

As well as being a senior accessibility consultant, Neil is blind and an experienced user of screen readers. He provided us with audio files demonstrating how different screen readers announce quotation marks in different ways.

Andrew and Neil confirmed that users configure screen readers in many different ways to meet their needs. They also confirmed that users will often change the settings depending on the content.

In short, Intopia’s advice is that it is not possible to write content that works with all screen readers. So don’t let the technology dictate style, especially as the technology is likely to evolve.

Léonie Watson is a digital accessibility engineer, member of the W3C Advisory Board and co-chair of the W3C Web Platform Working Group. In a blog for GOV.UK, ‘How to create content that works well with screen readers’, Léonie wrote:

So, the best answer seems to be: don't write content that works specifically for screen readers, write content that works well for everyone. Use correct punctuation, spelling and grammar, use standard conventions for acronyms and abbreviations, and use words that are appropriate for your audience.

In addition, Neil told us:

Don’t make punctuation adjustments for screen reader users as the technology changes, different screen reader software behaves differently, and users have different abilities and preferences.

It’s not just quotation marks

As for quote marks specifically – once again – each screen reader behaves differently. For example, some screen readers announce information that is in quote marks, whereas others just pause. Most importantly, the way screen readers behave is dependent on the settings the user has chosen and the platform they are using.

We discovered that punctuation is a common topic on screen reader technical forums. With quote marks being one of many issues. For example, some screen readers ignore superscript and subscript content and others announce minus signs as dashes.

The way screen readers announce punctuation also differs depending on how the application is used. For example a screen reader may not announce the dash in a span (2019–20 budget) when reading it as a sentence. However if the user, realising something doesn’t make sense, changes the settings to announce character by character, the screen reader will announce the dash.

Most screen readers allow users to customise punctuation settings. So even if the default settings don’t recognise all punctuation marks, users can configure the software to meet their needs. Users can specify how much punctuation they want announced. For example, TalkBack users can choose ‘High’, ‘Low’, or ‘Custom’ punctuation settings. JAWS users can choose punctuation settings of ‘All’, ‘Most’, ‘Some’ or ‘None’. Some screen readers also allow users to adjust settings for specific punctuation marks.

Add a lead-in

We also learned that, for people using screen readers, the lead-in is more important than the quotation marks for direct speech. Make sure you use a lead-in phrase or sentence to indicate that the content to follow is a quote. 

Example

  • The minister said, ‘We’ll have more to say about that at a later date’.

    The interjector yelled, ‘Tell us what you know, Bob – it won’t take long’. Menzies retorted, ‘I will tell you everything we both know, it won’t take any longer’.

On balance

Intopia advised that there are only a small number of surveys of assistive technology and little or no rigorous comparative research into the use of screen readers. This means that we must rely on expert advice as the evidence to inform our style.

On balance, we’re satisfied that there is no need to change our style from single quotation marks to double quotation marks on accessibility grounds.

We found:

  • There is significant difference in how screen readers handle punctuation. 
  • There is significant variance in how users configure their screen readers. 
  • Screen reader technology is evolving and improving, and should not be the catalyst for changing style conventions.

 

Susan Baird and Leanne Manthorpe. This article was first published in the October 2022 Style Manual newsletter.