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Single Quotation Marks Versus Double Quotation Marks

Do you know when to use quotation marks? How about single quotation marks?

By
Mignon Fogarty
Episode #740

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 "Darmok" episode of "Star Trek: The Next Generation" is one of my favorites.

The rules for longer works, such as books, are tricky. The Associated Press uses quotation marks, but the Chicago Manual of Style and the MLA Handbook recommend italics.

Here are some of the more common situations where people use double quotation marks: 

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  1. Use double quotation marks for scare quotes
  2. Use double quotation marks for words used as examples

Let's talk more about these examples below.

Use Double Quotation Marks for Scare Quotes

People also sometimes use double quotation marks 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.*

Use 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. 

Be Careful of Unnecessary Quotation Marks

A common mistake, though, is to use quotation marks to simply highlight a word in a sentence. The popular “Blog” of “Unnecessary” Quotation Marks (rest in peace) did 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 gluten. Stick with underlining or italics, or bold to highlight words. 

Why Use Single Quotation Marks? 

Here are some of the most common reasons people use single quotation marks:

  1. Use single quotation marks for a quotation within a quotation
  2. Use single quotation marks in headlines
  3. Use single quotation marks for words not being used for their meaning

Let's talk more about each of these situations.

Use Single Quotation Marks for a Quotation Within a Quotation

The most common reason to use single quotation marks is to quote someone who is quoting someone else. The rules are different 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 quotation.

You can find many articles that say British English uses single quotation marks around a direct quotation instead of double quotation marks, and although doing so is more common in British English than in American English, it doesn’t seem to be a hard-and-fast rule. I found many British news sites that used double quotation marks just like an American site would, including The Guardian, The Sunday Times, The Sun, and the BBC. It seems like using single quotation marks is more of an option in British English than a prevailing style. And in Britain, they also sometimes call them inverted commas.

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 followed by a double quotation mark when they fall right next to each other like they did in the last example, so typesetters sometimes insert something called a thin space between the two quotation marks. A thin space is just what it sounds like: a space that’s thinner than a regular space.

Use Single Quotation Marks in Headlines

Another place you’ll see single quotation marks a lot is in headlines in newspapers and on websites because the Associated Press uses single quotation marks for quotations in headlines.

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

Finally, 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.

'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.

Summary

In American English, use double quotation marks to surround a quotation. In British English, you can use single or double quotation marks for that. If you write for a company or publication, check your style guide. If you need to put a quotation inside your first quotation, use the opposite type of quotation marks to surround it. That’s single quotation marks in American English. 

Double quotation marks can also be used to show sarcasm or to identify words used as words instead of for their meaning. Single quotation marks are often used in headlines and in some disciplines to highlight words with special meanings. 

*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.

 

 

About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of the Quick and Dirty Tips network and creator of Grammar Girl, which has been named one of Writer's Digest's 101 best websites for writers multiple times. The Grammar Girl podcast has also won Best Education Podcast multiple times in the Podcast Awards, and Mignon is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame. Mignon is the author of the New York Times best-seller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing" and six other books on writing. She has appeared as a guest on the "Oprah Winfrey Show" and the "Today Show" and has been featured in the New York Times, Business Week, the Washington Post, USA Today, CNN.com, and more. She was previously the chair of media entrepreneurship in the Reynolds School of Journalism in Reno, NV. She hates the phrase "grammar nazi" and loves the word "kerfuffle." She has a B.A. in English from the University of Washington in Seattle and an M.S. in biology from Stanford University. Mignon believes that learning is fun, and the vast rules of grammar are wonderful fodder for lifelong study. 

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