Single Quotation Marks Versus Double Quotation Marks

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

Mignon Fogarty,
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).

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

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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

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*.

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 because it takes a bit of extra time to italicize words in our content management system. 

Be Careful of Unnecessary 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. 


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