Understanding and Using Italian Quotation Marks (Fra Virgolette)

Italian man eating and reading newspaper
Italian man eating and reading newspaper. Bob Barkany

Italian quotation marks (le virgolette) are sometimes treated as an afterthought in the classroom and in textbooks, but to English-speaking natives reading Italian newspapers, magazines, or books, it's obvious there are differences in both the symbols themselves and how they’re used.

In Italian, quotation marks are used to give a word or phrase a particular emphasis, and they’re also used to indicate citations and direct discourse (discorso diretto). In addition, quotation marks are used in Italian to point out jargon and dialect as well as to denote technical and foreign phrases.

Types of Italian Quotation Marks

Caporali (« »): These arrow-like punctuation marks are the traditional Italian quotation mark glyphs (in fact, they're also used in other languages, including Albanian, French, Greek, Norwegian, , and Vietnamese). Typographically speaking, the line segments are referred to as guillemets, a diminutive of the French name Guillaume (whose equivalent in English is William), after the French printer and punchcutter Guillaume le Bé (1525–1598). « » are the standard, primary form for marking up quotations, and in older textbooks, manuscripts, newspapers, and other printed material, are usually the only type encountered. The use of caporali (« ») begin to diminish with the advent of desktop publishing in the 80's, since a number of font sets did not make those characters available.

The newspaper Corriere della Sera (to point out just one example), as a matter of typographical style, continues to use caporali, both in the printed version and online. For instance, in an article about the high-speed train service between Milano and Bologna, there is this statement, using angled quotation marks, from the president of the Lombardia region: «Le cose non hanno funzionato come dovevano».

Doppi apici (or alte doppie) (" "): Nowadays these symbols frequently replace the traditional Italian quotation marks. For example, the newspaper La Repubblica, in an article regarding the possible merger of Alitalia with Air France-KLM, featured this direct quote: "Non abbiamo presentato alcuna offerta ma non siamo fuori dalla competizione".

Singoli apici (or alte semplici) (' '): In Italian, single quotation marks are typically used for a quotation enclosed inside another quotation (so-called nested quotations). They're also used to indicate words used ironically or with some reservation. An example from an Italian-English translation discussion board: Giuseppe ha scritto: «Il termine inglese "free" ha un doppio significato e corrisponde sia all'italiano "libero" che "gratuito". Questo può generare ambiguità».

Typing Italian Quotation Marks

To type « and » on computers:

For Windows users, type "«" by holding Alt + 0171 and "»" by holding Alt + 0187.

For Macintosh users, type "«" as Option-Backslash and "»" as Option-Shift-Backslash. (This applies to all English-language keyboard layouts supplied with the operating system, e.g. "Australian," "British," "Canadian," "U.S.," and "U.S. Extended". Other language layouts may differ. The backslash is this key: \)

As a shortcut, caporali can easily be replicated with the double inequality characters << or >> (but which typographically speaking, though, are not the same).

Usage of Italian Quotation Marks

Unlike in English, punctuation such as commas and periods are placed outside the quote marks when writing in Italian. For example: «Leggo questa rivista da molto tempo». This style holds true even when doppi apici are used instead of caporali: "Leggo questa rivista da molto tempo". The same sentence in English, though, is written: "I've been reading this magazine for a long time."

Given that certain publications use caporali, and others use doppi apici, how does one decide which Italian quotation marks to use, and when? Provided that the general usage rules are adhered to (using double quotation marks to signal direct discourse or point out jargon, for example, and single quotation marks in nested quotations), the only guidelines are to adhere to a consistent style throughout a text. Personal preference, corporate style, (or even character support) may dictate whether « » or " " are used, but there is no difference, grammatically speaking. Just remember to quote accurately!