Single Quotation Marks Versus Double Quotation Marks

How to nest them and when to use them in headlines.

Mignon Fogarty,
August 18, 2011
Episode #022

How to Use Single Quotation Marks

Today's topic is single quotation marks versus double quotation marks.

How to Use Double Quotation Marks

Most people think of double quotation marks as being for quotations, which they are, but they also have other legitimate uses. For example, double quotation marks are often used around the title of a short work such as a magazine article or an episode of a TV show.

The “Here Come the Suns” episode of Eureka was hilarious.

The rules for longer works such as books are tricky. The Associated Press uses quotation marks, but the Chicago Manual of Style recommends italics and the MLA Handbook used to recommend underlining, but changed the preferred style to italics in the 2009 edition (1).

Double Quotation Marks for Scare Quotes

Double quotation marks can also be used sometimes to indicate that a word is special in some way. I bet you've all seen quotation marks used as something called scare quotes, which are quotation marks put around a word to show that the writer doesn't buy into the meaning. For example, I could write the sentence:

Women achieved “equality” when they were granted the right to vote in 1920.

That would indicate that although women getting the right to vote was heralded as equality at the time, I don't think it was enough of a gain to merit the word equality. More often though, scare quotes (which are also sometimes called sneer quotes) are used to impart a sense of irony or disdain. They're especially common in nasty political commentary, as in Politicians “care” about their constituents*.

Double Quotation Marks for Words Used as Examples

Double quotation marks can also be used when you are writing a sentence and you want to refer to a word rather than use its meaning. Since I talk about words a lot, this comes up in almost every Grammar Girl episode. It's a style choice. You can use italics or double quotation marks to highlight words, but we use quotation marks on the  Grammar Girl site because it takes a bit of extra time to italicize words in our content management system. 

Unnecessary Quotation Marks

Single Quotation Marks Versus Double Quotation Marks

A common mistake, however, is to use quotation marks to simply highlight a word in a sentence. The popular “Blog” of “Unnecessary” Quotation Marks does nothing but mock signs that misuse quotation marks in this way. For example, if you are promoting your gluten-free cookies, and you put “gluten-free” in quotation marks, that actually means they have wheat. Stick with underlining or italics to highlight words. 

Use Single Quotation Marks for a Quote Within a Quote

The most common reason to use single quotation marks is to quote someone who is quoting someone else. The rules differ in British English, but in American English, you enclose the primary speaker's comments in double quotation marks, and then you enclose the thing they are quoting in single quotation marks. You nest them, with the double quotation marks on the outside and the single quotation marks on the inside.

For example, imagine you've interviewed Aardvark for a magazine article about his harrowing ordeal with an arrow, and he said, “Squiggly saved my life when he yelled, 'Watch out, Aardvark.' ”

If you're ever in the extremely rare position of having to nest another quotation inside a sentence like that, you would use double quotation marks again for the third nested quote.

Use Single Quotation Marks in Headlines

The Associated Press uses single quotation marks for quotations in headlines.

Use Single Quotation Marks to Highlight Words Not Being Used for Their Meaning

It's the convention in certain disciplines such as philosophy, theology, and linguistics to highlight words with special meaning by using single quotation marks instead of double quotation marks.

Use a Thin Space Between a Single Quotation Mark and a Double Quotation Mark

It can be hard to see a single quotation mark that’s immediately followed by a double quotation marks, so typesetters sometimes insert something called a thin space between the two. A thin space is just what it sounds like: a space that’s thinner than a regular space.

"Quote" Versus "Quotation"

Also, a frequent point of confusion is the difference between the words “quote” and “quotation.” “Quote” is a verb that means to repeat what someone else has said or written. For example, "Aardvark quoted Squiggly." “Quotation” is a noun used to describe what you are quoting, as in "Squiggly's quotation was inspiring."

It's common to hear people use the noun “quote” as a shortened form of “quotation,” as in "I filled my notebook with quotes from The Daily Show," but that is technically wrong. It should be, "I filled my notebook with quotations from The Daily Show."

I agree the correct way sounds a bit pretentious, and given that a lot of reference sources have extra entries discussing how the misuse is widespread, you aren't going to sound illiterate if you use “quote” incorrectly, but it is still good to know the difference.

There’s more to say about quotation marks, so next week, I’ll address how to combine them with other punctuation marks.


1. “What’s New in the MLA? Changes to the 7th Edition,” Academic Center, Tutoring and Testing, University of Houston-Victoria, http://www.uhv.edu/ac/style/pdf/MLA.Guide.Comparison.6.7.pdf, (accessed 8/12/2011).

*Normally I would put this sentence in quotation marks, but I wanted to reserve them to make the point that the word is meant to be facetious, so I chose to emphasize the sentence with italics.



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