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Single Quotation Marks—A Reader’s Question

May 7, 2011 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified May 7, 2014

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.

Italics
~  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.

Quotation Marks
~  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.

***

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Tags: ,     Posted in: A Reader Asks..., Grammar & Punctuation

37 Responses to “Single Quotation Marks—A Reader’s Question”

  1. HEATON CRAIG says:

    I have recently written a novel in British English, which I plan to upload to ‘Kindle’ – Amazon.

    Please advise if you consider the following example of text as suitable for ‘Kindle’, as I have tried, without success, to glean this vital information.

    “I told John to wash his hands, but he said: ‘OK, I will later, Mother,’ which I thought was odd, because he is normally so obedient, so I shouted: ‘Not later, John, I mean now!’ – but he ignored me completely.”

    John thought: ‘Why is she getting so upset?’

    Your advice on such an example would be much appreciated by very many people – thank you in anticipation.

  2. Heaton, I’m not sure exactly what your question is. Could you elaborate? What info are you looking for?

    • Heaton Craig says:

      Hi Beth – Your speedy response to my query is much appreciated – thank you!
      Due to the time difference, I did not reply to you immediately – please understand.
      I’m sorry my query was not clear to you.
      Basically, what I need to know is: when uploading a book to ‘Kindle’, what format does ‘Kindle’ require – double quotation marks ” ” for speech, or single quotation marks ‘ ‘ for speech?
      Which do paperback publishers prefer?

  3. Heaton, I’m not sure that it specifically matters for Kindle. It’s more what your audience is used to. Even those who typically see single quotation marks for dialogue know that double quotation marks are quite common. If you’re looking at an international audience, try doubles.

    But either is acceptable. Just be consistent througout the book.

    Good luck with your story.

  4. Tori says:

    Hey Beth,

    I know this article is a little old, but since I’m reading all your articles about grammar, I thought I’d ask this question. When it comes to writing the thoughts of your characters, I was always taught that you use single quotes but for dialogue, both. Is that wrong?

  5. Tori, thoughts typically don’t get quotation marks, whether singles or doubles. In fiction, for AmE, reserve single quotation marks for dialogue or quotations nestled inside other quotes or dialogue.

    If you’re using rules for BrE, you still wouldn’t use quotation marks for thoughts, but you could use single quotation marks for dialogue and the doubles for the dialogue or quotations nestled within that dialogue. BrE also allows for the use of single quotation marks to set off unusual or specialized words or phrases, where AmE would use double quotation marks for such words.

    Single quotation marks simply have limited purposes when it comes to fiction.

  6. Tori, you can use italics or do without any special visual indication that you’re writing thoughts. Check out this article—Inner Dialogue: Writing Character Thoughts. It’ll give you a few ideas.

  7. Am reading a novel written by a friend, self-published and on Kindle. I have found a lot of typos and he seems open to me telling him about them. He uses both double and single quotation marks. I think he is not being consistent, but will defend the usage as stylistic. I cannot, however, overlook this. He is quoting within a quote and using the correct marks, double for the person talking and single for what she is quoting. But the speaker gets to the end of her sentence at the same time she gets to the end of the internal quote. The author used 3 quotation marks at the end of the sentence. I think that has to be wrong. I m 72 years old and don’t think I have ever 3 quotation marks before. I think the sentence should end with a double quotation mark. Am I right? Is there a rule for this situation. I think it is a mistake he needs to fix…but realize I might be wrong.

  8. Helene, your friend is right on this one. Quotation marks come in pairs and you must include end quotation marks for every beginning quotation mark*. This is true for both doubles and singles. So if you have both dialogue and a quotation (or nested quotes) ending after the same word, yes, you do include both the double and single end quotation marks. This is a way to let readers know that both dialogue and quote are complete. It shows them who said what. Without both closing quotation marks, readers wouldn’t know where the quote ended. An example—

    “Josef told me he hadn’t been there. ‘I’m telling you the God’s honest truth, Noelle,’ he said. ‘I’ve never been to that woman’s house.’ ”

    * One seeming exception to the pair rule is dialogue that runs from paragraph to paragraph. Such paragraphs open with quotation marks but don’t end with them. Only use the closing quotation mark at the end of the character’s spoken words. Thus there may be a handful of opening quotation marks, but only one closing mark. But eventually there must be a closing quotation mark.

    I hope that helps. It’s great that you’re helping out your friend. I hope he gets his stories cleaned up on subsequent versions. Maybe he could pay you to proofread?

    For more on punctuation and dialogue, check out Punctuation in Dialogue

  9. Jessica says:

    Hi! Quick question about single quotations in fiction. If I’m referring to something a character said earlier in the book, would I use single or double quotes? Example:

    “I always put on a flannel before I open the refrigerator,” Brian said.

    — later in the novel —

    I picked up Joe’s flannel shirt from the floor and Brian came instantly to mind.
    ‘I always put on a flannel before I open the refrigerator.’
    The memory made me smile.

    So in this example, since it’s internal dialogue, would Brian’s quote be italicized, and would it have single or double quotes?

    Thanks!

    • Jessica, I don’t know how I missed this question. My apologies.

      I would italicize the memory of the quote. No need for quotation marks. But when you do use them, remember that while you can use singles for dialogue in BrE, always uses doubles for AmE. And in BrE, if you use doubles, you don’t want to turn around and use singles some of the time, perhaps for effect. Be consistent throughout the story.

  10. Helen says:

    I am writing school reports and want to say:

    Jane has enjoyed playing in the role play and dressing up as ‘Bob the Builder’ and had lots of fun building a wall!
    Peter has had lots of fun being ‘Mrs Wishy Washy’ and doing all the ironing!
    Do I need to put the character names (like I have above) in inverted commas?
    regards
    Helen

  11. Ashley E says:

    Hi Beth,

    Absolutely love this blog, but I have a question on this. Would you not include the single quotation marks for actions like mouthing words or for gestures? I always thought that’s how they would be written, but now I’m not sure.

    Examples: She mouthed ‘nice save.’

    She blinked at my ‘go on’ motion.

  12. Bobby says:

    Greetings – I understand that song titles always get double quotation marks. But what if the song title is mentioned in the context of standard dialogue, and at the end of a question? (We’re editing in CMS.) Example:

    “What is your fascination with ‘Moon River’?”

    Looks very bizarre! Thanks in advance…

  13. Lynda says:

    For whatever it’s worth, I won’t read books where the author uses single quotes for general dialogue (‘dialogue’) throughout instead of double quotation marks (“dialogue”). No matter how good the book is, if I see single quotes being used for dialogue, it makes me feel disappointed and I’ll lose interest before I’ve even finished the first page. I personally feel that it creates difficulty with flow, causes confusion, and makes a story annoying to read.

    • Lynda, I’m guessing that it’s the visual of the single quotation marks that causes you to have difficulty with them. Because they’re different from what you expect, you notice them again and again, and that interferes with the smooth flow of the story’s read. Anything that jumps out at the reader over and over, anything that requires processing again and again, is disruptive.

  14. Steve says:

    Comments…..

  15. Bea says:

    If I am writing a post on social media and wish to emphasise one word in a piece of text, but there is no quote. Can I use single quotation marks for emphasis?

    Example: I have others, but this is ‘the one’.

    • Bea, I assume you mean there’s no way to do italics? For British English you can use single quotation marks, yes. (And with the period outside the quotation marks, as you have shown it.) For American English rules use double quotation marks and put the period inside the quotation marks.

  16. K.A.D. says:

    Thank you for response to others who asked the question I needed the answer to in reference to quotations for thoughts…none needed! 😀The little things in life mean a lot!

  17. So this confuses me. This is one of the practice questions that I am reviewing right now as a preparation for my licensure examination.

  18. so the question is.
    The following headline appeared in the July issue of the Daily Inquirer. “Amy accuses rebels of using civilians as ‘human shields'” The phrase HUMAN SHIELD is enclosed in a single quotation marks. This indicates that the phrase
    A. is newly-coined
    B. is important
    C. is not used correctly
    D. is extraordinary
    In the review center that I am attending the answer was B but in my book which I bought in a local book store the answer was A. I am so confused. Please help me.

    • Hannah, newly coined is the only option that fits out of these choices.

      We use quotation marks to quote someone, for the first use of new or made-up words in an article or story, for words used in a nonstandard manner or for irony or sarcasm, and sometimes for words used as words (though we use italics for words as words for the most part—the word jelly makes me laugh).

      We don’t use quotation marks to indicate importance. The answer the center provided is not correct.

      See this article on Italics or Quotation Marks for even more information.

      I hope that helps.

      —————-

      After looking at the option again, I also think that the quotation marks could be used incorrectly. Human shield is a known phrase and doesn’t actually need quotation marks. But to fit one of the answer keys, newly coined would be closest to the correct answer.

  19. Vicki says:

    I need to change the opening single quotation mark to an apostrophe in an 18th C novel with lots of apostrophes, such as ’tis, ’twas, etc. In Word, using smart quotes, the apostrophe, which is faces the same way as ), gets automatically changed to face this way (. MS Word seems incapable of understanding that you could need an apostrophe at the start of a word vs. inside a word, for example, ’round ’bout now. For those words, the closing single quote mark as the apostrophe is necessary, but instead of looking like an apostrophe, it looks like it’s opposite within smart quotes. Help!!!

  20. Vicki, type any letter before the apostrophe and then type the apostrophe—it’ll be facing the right way. Then delete the letter you don’t need.

    There may be several other ways to do this, but this option works and is easy to do as you type.

  21. Hi beth I’m always having problem with all these quotes the only one i use is full stop.can u name all the quotes and the purpose on which they are use thanks

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