Single Or Double Quotation Marks?

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Many people get mixed up when it comes to using single and double quotation marks. This is not surprising when you consider that different countries have different preferences. And to add more confusion, quotation marks are also known by other names, such as inverted commas and occasionally aerial commas.

In fact, an epidemic of “quotation mark abuse” in everyday writing, and even in writing professional fiction or non-fiction, has become a widespread problem. We just don’t seem to know when to use single quotation marks, double quotation marks, or when to avoid them all together.

First, let’s define quotation marks. Quotation marks are punctuation marks that are used in pairs—an opening mark and a closing mark—in order to set off direct quotations, speech, certain titles, a phrase, a word, or other dialogue.

Second, let’s delve into what quotation marks—whether single or double—should not be used for. There are a few types of quotation mark abuse, but the two most prevalent are emphasis and sarcasm. As a general rule, both types of quotation marks should not be used simply to stress any word or words in a sentence.

Quotation marks used emphatically in these two sentences are not uncommon on public signs:

Please ‘DO NOT’ remove trolleys from store.

Please ring the bell for our “friendly” service.

The single quotation marks in the first sentence are completely unnecessary, grammatically incorrect (if any quotation marks were used, they would be double, not single) and even raise questions as to the statement’s meaning. The double quotation marks in the second sentence create some skepticism as to what kind of service is actually being offered.

The intentionally sarcastic and scornful misuse of quotation marks is worse, and is far too rampant in today’s fiction, non-fiction and everyday communicative writing. However, sometimes it can work to use double quotation marks around a word that is meant to carry a certain element of irony, as long as it is done correctly and used appropriately.

So what should quotation marks be used for, and what’s the difference between single quotation marks and double quotation marks?

The first, and perhaps most obvious, use of quotation marks is to surround direct quotations or spoken words. In this case, always use double quotation marks (“ ”) to enclose the quotation. Quotation marks should only be used to repeat an exact written phrase or sentence, or exact spoken words. For paraphrases or indirect quotations, do not use quotation marks.

Single quotation marks are not used for direct quotations or spoken words (except in Britain and Australia—more on that shortly) unless a quotation needs to be used within a quotation. For quotations within quotations, always use single quotation marks.

Here is an example:

“I can’t believe that the Grey’s Anatomy ‘Doctor of Death’ episode was repeated on the weekend, and I missed it!” Jennifer said to Matt.

As a T.V. show title, Grey’s Anatomy needs italics and the episode “Doctor of Death” needs quotation marks. Note how double quotation marks are used when it’s mentioned on its own, but single quotation marks are used within a quotation. If the quotation within the quotation is at the end of the sentence, two separate quotation marks—a single quotation mark and then a double quotation mark—appear at the end of the sentence, after the period or comma. For example:

“No kidding,” replied Matt. “I hated the episode ‘Doctor of Death.’”

(Note: this is a fictitious episode title.)

For quotations within quotations within quotations (which doesn’t happen that often in writing), double quotation marks are used. The original quotation is enclosed in double quotation marks; the quotation within that quotation is enclosed in single quotation marks; and the quotation within that quotation is enclosed in double quotation marks again.

The second use of quotation marks is for titles of songs, television show episodes, articles, short stories, and poems. Double quotation marks are always used for the names of items that belong to a large group, set or complete work, like a chapter in a book. The larger group, set or complete work is italicized, and includes books, music albums, movies, newspapers and magazines. But be aware that again, different countries have different preferences.

Some examples:

Grey’s Anatomy (a T.V. show title)

– “Doctor of Death” (a T.V. episode title)

Back to Basics (a Christina Aguilera album title)

– “Candyman” (a Christina Aguilera song title)

The Science of Getting Rich (a book title)

– “The Right to be Rich” (a chapter title)

The question of where to put single and double quotation marks with respect to other punctuation is a big one. If a quotation ends with a period or comma, put the closing quotation mark after the period or comma. If a quotation ends with a colon or semi-colon, put the closing quotation mark before the colon or semi-colon. If a quotation ends with an exclamation or question mark, put the closing quotation mark after the mark, unless it’s not part of the quotation, then it goes before.

Here are some examples:

“No man is an island,” wrote John Donne.

I’m not a big fan of Stephen King’s short story “The Death of Jack Hamilton”; however, I do like the other stories from his collection Everything’s Eventual, especially “L.T.’s Theory of Pets.”

“Why did he break up with you?” asked Sarah.

I couldn’t believe our professor was actually dancing to “Thriller”!

If you want to use a quotation that has more than 30 words or 3 lines, there is actually no need for quotation marks at all. Simply indent the text from the left-hand margin, reduce the font size by a point or two and leave an extra line space above and below the quotation. This is called a block quotation and sets the quotation apart from other text so no marks are needed (be sure to still cite your source though).

One important point to keep in mind is that Americans, the British and Australians disagree on the grammatically correct usage of single and double quotation marks. The British and Australians actually use both single quotation marks and double quotation marks, depending on style and publisher preference, and they favor keeping other punctuation, like commas and periods, to the outside. The Australian Government Style Manual recommends single quotation marks under the premise that less punctuation is better, and yet many Australian newspapers and publishers still use double quotation marks.

Here is an example of this difference:

“I’m having the worst day of my life,” sighed Heather. —American

‘I’m having the worse day of my life’, sighed Heather. —British/Australian

But what about the difference between the term “inverted commas” and the terms “quotation marks” and “quotes?” (This is not considered quotation abuse, by the way; these quotations were not used for emphasis but to set aside the terms.)

There is actually a difference between the words quote and quotation. Technically and grammatically, quote is a verb that means to repeat what somebody else has written or said. Quotation, on the other hand, is a noun referring to what you are quoting. In this article, quote and quotation could be interchangeable, which is generally accepted, but there is a technical difference and the preferred term is quotation.

The term inverted commas originated in the eighteenth century and is not widely used anymore, but you will still find some references to it. The British do still use the term, but generally when referring to single quotation marks. (This paragraph and the one above are using italics in place of quotes—which do you prefer? Italics do make the copy cleaner and easier to read.)

So, quote, quotation or inverted commas? Some even call them aerial commas. It’s best to stick to your country’s standard style unless you are writing for a particular market. Personally, I prefer to use double quotation marks as I feel that it helps the reader understand my intentions by avoiding confusion with apostrophes. And that’s the most important thing – the reader.


Kristy Taylor is a syndicated freelance journalist with articles and short stories strewn across all forms of media. She has written and published numerous books, and is the executive editor of KT Publishing, which encompasses several web sites. For free listings of short story competitions visit http://www.shortstorycompetitions.com

To contact Kristy, email her at mail@kristytaylor.com


This piece may NOT be freely reprinted. Please contact editor @ howtotellagreatstory.com for reprint rights.

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2 thoughts on “Single Or Double Quotation Marks?

  1. I am editing a short story that starts out in third person POV, then shifts to first person POV as the main character begins telling a story. Periodically, the character pauses in the story, and it shifts back to third person to describe other characters’ reactions, then it goes back to first person. The blocks of first person dialogue are quite long. The story ends in third person.

    I’m struggling with how to appropriately use quotation marks when the story is in first person POV. Do I use a double quotation mark at the beginning of the character’s story, then end it when the POV switches back to third person POV? If so, then should I use single quotation marks to set of the dialogue that the character telling the story relates during his story telling? This is the way I’ve been doing it, but didn’t know if that was correct since there are sometimes many pages between the beginning double quotation mark and the ending one. If the first person POV continues from one chapter to the next, I am using double quotations at the beginning and end of the chapters.

    The other possibility I had thought of is this: would it be more appropriate to use a double line space, ************, or other type of text break at these POV shifts? Then I assume I wouldn’t need to use double quotation marks for the first person POV, and would only use the double quotation marks for the dialogue the storyteller relates while telling his story. I have been unable to find much info relating to this specific problem, so I would REALLY appreciate your feedback!! THANK YOU!!!

    • Hello,

      I am no expert, but I would you the second possibility you’ve stated. In other words, I would use a double line space, *** or a glyph to show these changes in the POV.

      I hope that helps.

      Aneeta

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