Single or Double Quotation Marks?

Should I use single or double quotation marks?

Writers in the US and those who work for UK newspapers tend use double quotation marks to quote speech or writing. For example:
  • John supposedly said: "People say I've got no willpower, but Iíve quit smoking loads of times." correct tick (small American flag) (small British flag press)
  • (Americans and the UK press tend to use doubles.)
In British businesses and literature, however, the tendency is to use single quotation marks. For example:
  • Alexander wrote: 'I struggle with Roman numerals until I get to 159, then it just CLIX.' correct tick (small British flag)
  • (In the UK, authors tend to use singles.)

Nesting a Quotation within Quotation

When nesting a quotation within a quotation, American writers and much of the British press use singles for the nested quotation. For example:
  • Homer Simpson said: "Maybe, just once, someone will call me 'Sir' without saying 'you're making a scene' next." correct tick (small American flag) (small British flag press)
In the rest of the UK, the nested words in quotation marks are written in double quotation marks. For example:
  • The Defence Secretary stood up and declared: 'At 0600 hours tomorrow, "Ark Royal" will set sail with her full complement of crew.' correct tick (small British flag)
Remember that quotation marks can be used for sarcasm and to show the names of ships (as in the example above), books, and plays. If any of these feature in a quotation, they are also treated like a nested quotation. For example:
  • I read an article on the "Marie Celeste." The articles states: "A giant squid may have attacked the 'Marie Celeste' as the crew celebrated on the deck." correct tick (small American flag) (small British flag press)
  • (Note that the first Marie Celeste is in doubles, but the nested one is in singles. Of note, it is more common to italicize the names of ships, books, and plays rather than use quotation marks. However, quotation marks are still used in handwritten texts.)
Here are some more examples:
  • Anne asked: "Are you really going to see 'Phantom of the Opera'?" correct tick (small American flag) (small British flag press)
  • (Americans and the UK press tend to use doubles.)
  • Thomas said: "These are the 'mates' who left me on the island." correct tick (small American flag) (small British flag press)
  • Clapping slowly, Julian stood up and cried: 'That was even better than your performance of "Twelfth Night" in London last year.' correct tick (small British flag)

Lesson Summary

Here is an infographic to summarize this lesson:
single or double quotation marks

Be Consistent!

If you keep an eye out for these conventions, you will notice that many Americans and Brits do not follow these "national" conventions. Therefore, you should copy whatever convention your institution uses and then be consistent.

In other words, if you start with doubles, keep with doubles, and use singles only for nested quotations. Similarly, if you start with singles, keep with singles, and use doubles only for nested quotations.

Beware the Quirks!

Here are two quirks to look out for:

Quirk 1: Using singles for sarcasm. Some writers who start with doubles (typically Americans and the UK press) use singles for sarcasm to differentiate the word from quoted speech or writing. For example:
  • I turned to the fishmonger and said: "No, thanks." To me, the 'fresh' scallops seemed a bit slimy.
  • (Note that the quoted text is in doubles, but the word fresh is in singles because the quotation marks denote so-called, not quoted text.)
Of note, those who start with singles (typically Brits) do not differentiate by using doubles for so-called or alleged.

Quirk 2: Using singles for individual letters. It is also common to see singles around individual letters because doubles look too stark. For example:
  • There is no 'a' in "definite." No, really, there isn't.
  • (This style would be adopted only by those who start with doubles. Those who start with singles do not use doubles for single letters.)

Video Lesson

Here is a 3-minute video summarizing this lesson on single and double quotation marks. video lesson

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This page was written by Craig Shrives.