Write well. Write often. Edit wisely.
A reader recently asked about using single quotation marks. I answered in a comment on the article, but since I’ve not addressed single quotation marks before, I thought I might as well make an article out of my answer.
This is an expanded version of my answer when reader Sara asked—
Can you give me any suggestions for the use of single quotes– besides their use ‘inside’ a quotation? I’d like to use them to add emphasis to single words within text.
Are there any hard and fast rules?
In fiction, at least with American English (AmE), there’s really no use for single quotation marks other than as a quote within another quote (typically when a character is speaking and quoting someone else).
Note: British English (BrE) can use single and double quotation marks in the reverse, with singles for dialogue and doubles for quotations within dialogue, although examples of both methods are common.
BrE allows for single quotation marks when setting off a word as a word, but AmE requires double quotation marks for the same purpose.
The word he was looking for was “abjuration.” (AmE)
The word he was looking for was ‘abjuration’. (BrE)
Single quotation marks have quite specific uses outside of fiction—
~ Use single quotation marks for quotes within a quote, the same way fiction presents such quotes.
“I want to go,” I said quite clearly. “But she said, ‘Not with me. You can never travel to Paris with me.’ “
~ In discussions of linguistics or phonetics, a foreign word is italicized and if the definition follows, that definition is enclosed in single quotation marks.
~ Words with philosophical or theological meaning, when used in articles or books about philosophy or theology, are often put in single quotation marks.
~ Single quotation marks are used in newspaper headlines when quotation marks are required. (Space is limited for newspapers; they cut punctuation wherever they can.)
~ The cultivar name of a plant is put in single quotation marks, though in the past it was written cv. + name.
In American English, single quotation marks aren’t used very often and always for specific purposes. If you’re writing fiction, stick with double quotation marks.
To emphasize text, you can use either italics or double quotation marks. In some circumstances, one is preferable to the other. Never use both to indicate emphasis.
~ Use italics to show shock or to emphasize a word that a speaker might emphasize—He ran all the way to the police station vs. he ran all the way to the police station. A different emphasis gives a different meaning.
~ Use italics to set off non-English words in English text. If the word has become commonly used and is understood, there is no need to italicize it.
Maxwell’s nom de plume is Rastaglio. His pretensions are clear, yet he writes for an unsuccessful feuilleton.
~ Use italics for sounds—boom, crack, brrr—if you intend for readers to hear the sounds.
~ Use quotation marks, always double (in AmE), to set off special words, such as words you make up or highly specialized words. You only need to use the quotation marks the first time the word is used in your text.
Arthur and company are scalawags and “gutterturdlians.” And that’s all I have to say about them.
~ Also use quotation marks to indicate irony or sarcasm.
Italics or Quotation Marks
Use either italics or quotation marks for words used as words—Marlowe was talking about humidity, but he kept saying “timidity.” Marlowe has trouble with words; he uses weary for wary.
Both quotation marks and italics stand out; they attract the reader’s attention. Use them sparingly so the reader isn’t pulled from the fiction. But do use them. Their use is one more option for bringing variety to your fiction.
I find quotation marks stand out more than italics, so I tend to recommend italics more often. They accomplish their purpose, but they allow the word to blend into the sentence.
Emphasizing words or phrases allows you to add nuance and shading, and the use of emphasized words can help make a character stand out. But because this technique of emphasis is visual, it can quickly distract or annoy the reader.
Let italics or quotation marks be a tool for emphasis, but only one of several. Make the flow and meaning of the story stand out to the reader. Don’t rely on punctuation to do the work of words.