When should you use single quotes and when should you used double quotes?
A straightforward question with a not so straightforward answer.
The first answer is that it depends on where your readers are, and the second answer is that it actually doesn’t matter where your readers are. In the U.S., Canada, New Zealand, and Australia, convention tends toward double quotes.
In this quote from The Razor’s Edge, by W. Somerset Maugham, the reader is confronted with the narrator’s musing about his characters at the end of the story: “I am of the earth, earthy; I can only admire the radiance of such a rare creature, I cannot step into his shoes and enter into his innermost heart as I sometimes think I can do with a person more nearly allied to the common run of man.”
In the United Kingdom and South Africa, convention tends toward the single quote, but even here double quotes are not uncommon.
And earlier in The Razor’s Edge, ‘He is without ambition and he has no desire for fame; to become anything of a public figure would be deeply distasteful to him; and so it may be that he is satisfied to lead his chosen life and be no more than himself.’
Ultimately, your preference can outweigh any regional convention. But whatever your decision, don’t mix—remain consistent with quotation marks throughout the piece.
But sometimes, you need them both. Both single and double quotes are necessary when quoting a text that contains direct speech or when there is speech within speech.
She came to the door to see me out and kissed me on both cheeks.
‘We’ve had some good times together. Keep a good recollection of me.’
“She came to the door to see me out and kissed me on both cheeks.
“‘We’ve had some good times together. Keep a good recollection of me.’”
Remember that quotes are used to indicate a special use of a word or to indicate irony or to tell the reader that you are talking about the word not using it. In these situations, a single or double quotation mark can be used. (If you missed the earlier articles, click here to learn about punctuating quotes and click here to learn about when to use quotes.)
Special Use (the original text without quotation marks):
That which will be shrunk
Must first be stretched.
That which will be weakened
Must first be strengthened.
That which will be torn down
Must first be raised up.
That which will be taken
Must first be given.
This is called “subtle illumination.”
– Lao Tzu, “36” Tao Te Ching
“What a ‘deep’ voice you have,” said Little Snarky Red Riding Hood.
“What do you mean? Are you saying I have a squeaky voice? Take that back! Why are you so mean to me?” cried the mealy wolf.
Talking about the word—not using it:
The word “penumbra” can be used figuratively to great effect.
As a recommendation, use the quotation mark that you are not using for your citations or direct speech. So if you use double quotes for citations, use single quotes for the special use of a word. And if you use single quotes for citations, use the double quotes for a special use of a word. In this way, you can further signify your intent as well as delineate the different ways that quotation marks are used. This, however, is merely a suggestion and something you won’t likely find in a style manual.