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What Is a Guillemet?

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  • Written By: Meg Higa
  • Edited By: Shereen Skola
  • Last Modified Date: 24 October 2014
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The guillemet is a punctuation mark in the category of paired brackets that function to enclose a set of words. It is shaped as two line segments hinged into a directional arrow. These can be either single or double marks, and many languages use this punctuation as quotation marks. This is how they look: « and ». With the advent of computer languages and digital print, the symbols have also come to have additional functions.

Guillemet is a French word, believed named after the typesetter who first engraved and printed the “French quote.” In English, these are called angle quotes, but this is a rarely encountered punctuation. Uncommonly, they may also be referred as "duck’s feet quotes" for their resemblance to the animal’s mud prints. Sometimes, they are mis-named guillemot, which is a type of seabird.

French is not the only language which uses guillemets as quotation marks. Spanish, Russian and Swiss-German are a few of the many languages that use them for the same purpose — to indicate and separate speech. Different languages may use them in varying ways, however. French starts a quote with a left-pointing guillemet, and ends it with a right-pointing one, similarly to the bracketing curled smart quotes used in English type. Danish reverses the arrows’ direction inward, and the Finnish language uses the double right-arrow punctuation exclusively.

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The single mark guillemet looks like this: ‹ and ›. These are used in some languages as nested, secondary quotation marks, in the same fashion as English’s single quotation marks. The special characters are not found on a typical English keyboard. For their approximations, the inequality symbols for lesser than (), also called brokets, are used, and typed twice when needed.

The glyphs have also been referred as diamond brackets and chevrons, the latter a reference to the triangular stripes of military rank insignias and heraldic shields. Digitally, the characters are defined as left and right angle quotation marks. They have their own standardized alpha-numeric designations. Taking advantage of the symbols’ relative rarity in normal text, several computer programs use guillemets as delimiters to mark the beginning and ending of logic operations. Casual users of computers have also commonly adopted these brackets in text-based communication to describe a sender’s state or action, such as to express “grinning.”

Double guillemets have become universal symbols in electronic devices for fast forwarding and rewinding recorded media. Increasingly, the right angle quotation marks have gained use in English print as either an alternative for ellipsis (...) or as a mark to indicate continuation of text content elsewhere. Conversely, in other languages, the guillemet as quotation marks is increasingly used interchangeably with the English punctuation marks “ and ”.

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