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

Why Use Single Quotation Marks? 

Here are some of the most common reasons that single quotation marks might be used. 

  1. Use single quotation marks for a quote within a quote
  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 Quote Within a Quote

The most common reason to use single quotation marks is to quote Quotation Markssomeone 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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