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Quotation Marks: Single Vs. Double

September 22, 2016

On Your Mark

In honor of National Punctuation Day on Saturday, September 24, today's blog post will be dedicated to quotation marks. Most people know that double quotation marks are used to quote direct speech, but are there any other common uses? When are single quotation marks used?

Mark My Words

In general, double quotations marks are used far more often than single quotation marks. In fact, some people use single marks when they should be using double marks. When in doubt, double up!

Double Quotation Marks

1. Quoted Speech

This use is a no-brainer. When quoting direct speech in English, use double quotation marks.

  • My mother said, "Don't forget to wear a sweater!"
  • "We can't be late," he said.
  • "If you don't mind," she answered, "I'd rather not say."

Notice that direct speech is usually introduced with a comma. If your students need practice with comma usage, try our writing lesson: How to Use a Comma.

2. Emphasis

Double quotation marks are commonly used for emphasis or to highlight any words or phrases of text. Some people were taught to use single quotation marks for this case, but most publishers and style guides agree that single quotation marks aren't a great choice. Acceptable alternatives to double quotation marks include putting the word in bold or in italics. Be careful not to underline a word you want to emphasize (underlining is reserved for links to URLs nowadays).

  • We learned the definition of “verbing.”
  • Look up “under the gun.”
  • The US and Canada call it “soccer,” but the rest of the world calls it “football.”

3. Titles

Many style guides (e.g., The Chicago Manual of Style) suggest using double quotation marks for song titles, titles of TV episodes, titles of poems, and titles of sections, features, or pages of a website.

  • They played "Yellow Submarine" by the Beatles.
  • "Blood Money" is his favorite episode of Breaking Bad.
  • This website has a great section called “Help Center.”

Notice that these are titles that exist within another container, such as a song on an album, an episode in a series, or a section of a website. Try our writing lesson: How to Cite a Source for practice (from our Writing in English section).

Single Quotation Marks

Quotes within Quotes

Single quotation marks aren't used very often. In fact, their only common language use is to quote direct speech or emphasize a word(s) within quoted speech (to visually differentiate between the two).

  • Our teacher said, “We will be learning the word ‘application’ today.”
  • "Do you know the meaning of the phrase 'sleep on it'?" my classmate asked.
  • Terry Pratchett said, “In the words of the philosopher Sceptum, the founder of my profession: 'Am I going to get paid for this?'”

In or Out?

In American and Canadian English, it is common to have end punctuation (periods and commas) for words and phrases inside the end quotation mark. British English prefers it on the outside. However, everyone agrees that complete sentences should have the end punctuation inside the closing quotation mark.

  • Describe "cognition." (American and Canadian English)
  • Describe 'cognition'. (British English)
  • She said, "I can't go out tonight." (American, Canadian, and British English)

American, Canadian, and British English all place other end punctuation (question marks, exclamation marks, colons, and semicolons) inside the quoted speech if it's part of the quote, and outside if it's not.

  • She asked, "Are you coming tonight?"
  • Who said "All the world's a stage"?

Curly or Straight?

Quotation marks can be straight or curved depending on the font or application you're typing with. The general consensus is that curly quotes are preferred over straight quotes, but the main thing is not to combine the two types in the same document. There are some good examples of each on the Smart Quotes for Smart People website.

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