Single or Double Quotation Marks?




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.

Original text:

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.’

Quoted text:

“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.


 How to Punctuate Quotes



In a previous article, we covered when to use quotation marks. Now let’s learn how to punctuation them.


Commas and colons are the only punctuation marks used before a quote. Using these two is straightforward and uncomplicated, and you may already have an intuitive sense of how to use them from your readings. (Sidenote: in your journey through older texts, you many find that some authors place a dash before a quotation. This use is now antiquated and should be avoided.)



Use the comma before a citation or direct speech. The comma introduces the quote, and allows the reader to pause momentarily before continuing. Nearly all quotations of direct speech will begin with a comma. Often the comma will come after phrases like ‘she said’ or ‘she asked.’

She turned toward the sun and asked, “When will a day truly be mine?”

Don’t use a comma, or any punctuation, if you lead into the quote with the word ‘that.’

Mark Twain said that “The coldest winter [he] ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.”

And in some cases, you won’t even use quotation marks as shown in the example bellow.

I overheard her say that she wants the day to be hers. What does that mean?



In three situations, colons are more appropriate for introducing quotes:

(1) If you write a complete thought, and the quote that follows illustrates what you wrote, use a colon. This is most common with citations, but not exclusively so.

President Obama’s positive attitude is clear in his campaign slogan: “Yes we can!”


(2) When the quote is long—longer than a single sentence or longer than two short sentences—use a colon. Again this is more common with citations.

John Cleese wrote a clever piece of satire about European nations and their threat levelst. Perhaps stereotypical and a slight offensive, but this is the fault of most great comedy: “The French government announced yesterday that it has raised its terror alert level from ‘Run’ to ‘Hide.’ The only two higher levels in France are ‘Collaborate’ and ‘Surrender.’ The rise was precipitated by a recent fire that destroyed France’s white flag factory, effectively paralyzing the country’s military capability.”


(3) Use a colon with block quotations—hefty, long quotes indented and separate from the rest of the paragraph. Blockquotes don’t actually have quotation marks since indenting and quotation marks indicate the same thing—a direct, word‐for‐word citation. But in the example below, due to formating limitations, I have left the quotation marks.

Milan Kundera begins his novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, unlike other novels. He begins with philosophy:

“The idea of the eternal return is a mysterious one, and Nietzsche has often perplexed other philosophers with it: to think that everything recurs as we have experienced it, and the recurrence itself recurs ad infinitum! What does this mad myth signify? Putting it negatively, the myth of eternal return states that a life which disappears once and for all, which does not return, is like a shadow, without weight, dead in advance, and whether horrible, beautiful, or sublime, its horror, sublimity, and beauty mean nothing.”


Proficient writers can drop punctuation altogether at the beginning of quotes by crafting a sentence whose syntax matches that of the quote. This is especially true when citing only a phrase or clause.

Kundera’s book is about just that, about the “shadows, without weight, dead in advance.” Or to put it negatively, a life full of weight is more meaningful and desirable.



When a quotation is interrupted before completion, a comma will signal the beginning of the break and the end of the break. The first comma is placed inside of the closing punctuation mark; the last comma will proceed the initial quotation mark of the rest of the quote. Seeing an example will make this clear.

“Margaret, why is it,” asked James sternly, “that every time I leave the room, you eat all of my ice cream? I fill the bowl back up and you just eat it. Why?”

This is the primary way to break a quote into two parts. No other punctuation marks are used.



Periods & Commas

From the previous examples, you are able to see some of the typical ways to punctuate the end of a quotation: punctuation mark first, then the end punctuation mark.

Yet some differences in end punctuation do arise depending on your geography.

If you write for an American audience, always place a period or comma inside the final quotation mark, regardless of the original quote. The following quote comes from Plato’s Apology. This is Socrates speaking to the court which just condemned him to death:

AMERICAN AUDIENCE: “You are wrong if you believe by killing people you will prevent anyone from reproaching you for not living in the right way.”

AMERICAN AUDIENCE: Perhaps we need to define “living the right way.”

If you write for a British audience, placement of the end punctuation mark depends on the original quote. So, if the original quote did not have the punctuation, you need to keep the punctuation out of the quote. Although some exceptions do apply (as if this isn’t confusing enough), like in fiction, the punctuation marks can live inside of the quotation mark.

BRITISH AUDIENCE: Perhaps we need to define “living the right way”.


Colons & Semicolons

Americans and Britons agree–keep them outside of the last quotation mark. Unless, of course, it is part of the original quotation. Let’s look at a quote from the Rig-Veda X, a creation story:

“When neither Being nor Not-Being was”: in the Christian tradition, this same idea reads differently but is uncanny in its similarity.

“What did it encompass? Where? In whose protection?”; these questions, though, are not found in the Christian Bible.


Exclamation & Question Marks

If the original text contained an exclamation or question mark, keep the end mark inside of the end quotation.

ORIGINAL TEXT: What did it encompass? Where? In whose protection?

CITATION: “What did it encompass? Where? In whose protection?”

But if the text did not contain an exclamation or question mark, and it is your addition, place the end marks outside of the end quotation.

ORIGINAL TEXT: Wise seers, searching within their hearts.

CITATION: But what does this line mean: “Wiser seers, searching within their hearts”?


 When to Use Quotation Marks



Quotation marks come in pairs, in multiple versions (single or double), and in multiple styles (vertical or curved). Most know that quotation marks are for letting everyone know that someone is speaking. We also know that quotes from a book or from a person should be surrounded by quotation marks. But there are some lesser known ways to use quotation marks that will help you to be more expressive in your writing.

In this post, we will look at when to use and not use quotation marks. Next week we will look at how to punctuate with quotation marks (not as straightforward as it sounds).


I. With direct quotations

Direct quotes come in two varieties: speech or citation.


This use is common in fiction or nonfiction when indicating what characters say aloud (although quotes can also be used to signify internal thoughts too), and in news articles and magazines when quoting an interview.

“Hello, who is it?” asked Major Maulthweitz.

“It’s Honey Bee,” came the response on the other side of the door.

“Honey Bee, who?” said Major Maulthweitz with a questioning look.

“Honey, be a dear and bring me my coat,” said Major Maulthweitz’s wife.


This occurs when writers copy other writers word-for-word with no changes. Writers do this to provide support for an idea, provide proof of a thesis, to analyze a text, to refute another author, or merely to express an idea in more eloquent language than the author may be able to.

Kundera begins his novel not with setting or character or plot, but rather with philosophy. The Unbearable Lightness of Being begins here: ”The idea of eternal return is a mysterious one, and Nietzsche has often perplexed other philosophers with it: to think that everything recurs as we once experienced it, and that the recurrence itself recurs ad infinitum!  What does this mad myth signify?”


II. For titles of small works

For the title of things that are published or released within a larger work, use quotation marks. This includes the titles of chapters in a book; of TV episodes; of articles in a newspaper, magazine, or journal; titles of songs; of short stories; and of poems. If you are unsure it you should use quotes, ask yourself a simple question, “Is this the title of something that is part a larger work?” If you answer, “yes,” use quotes; if you answer, “no,” italicize or underline the title.

newspaper article: “The High-Flavor, Low-Dogma Healthy Diet,” by Mark Bittman of The New York Times

song title: “Like a Rolling Stone,” by Bob Dylan

chapters: “Why are People,” The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins

TV episodes: “Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen,” M*A*S*H

short stories: “Master and Man,” by Leo Tolstoy

III. For times when referring to a word or phrase

Use quotes to indicate that you are talking about a word or phrase, not using the word for its meaning. In this way, the word or phrase is under discussion. Italicizing the word or phrase is another common way to let the reader know the same thing: “I am talking about this word. I’m not using this in my writing right now.”

The word “patronizing” has two meanings that don’t seem to be related: one about being a customer and the other about being kind to hind a feeling of superiority.


IV. To indicate irony

Use quotes around words when you don’t intend them to be taken seriously, that is, to indicate verbal irony. (Verbal irony is when a person says one thing but means the exact opposite.) This is actually the only time, too, when a punctuation mark has a life outside of written text–air quotes with your fingers indicate that the speaker is being ironic. The comic above is funny for this reason. (Is he really handsome?)

That is such a “beautiful” painting.

The recent “democratic” election in Venezuela had many irregularities.

The comic is also relevant to the next point.


V. To indicate a special usage of a word

At times, authors use words in ways that don’t adhere to normal usage. Maybe they using a word in a creative way, or using a phrase in an abnormal fashion. Use quotes for these times. After establishing this unconventional use of a word, though, the quotes are usually dropped in subsequent uses.

Stephen Fried coined the neologism, “fashionista,” in his book, Thing of Beauty: The Tragedy of the Supermodel Gia.


VI. Use with nicknames

Use quotation marks around a nickname.

ex‐wrestler Jesse “the Body” Ventura

ex‐governor Jesse “the Brain” Ventura



VII. NOT with indirect quotations

Unless you are writing word‐for‐word what an author wrote or a person said, don’t use quotation marks. Paraphrases or a summaries do not need quotation marks.

ORIGINAL: All through the house, no animal stirred, not even a mouse.

INCORRECT: “All through the house, nothing moved, not even a mouse.”

CORRECT: “All through the house, no animal stirred, not even a mouse.”

But if you need to change a single word for clarity, this can be accomplished with brackets [ ]. This is sometimes necessary when fitting the quotation into the syntax of your sentence or when clarify who or what is being discussed

ORIGINAL: He knew that it was a good idea, but he didn’t know it would turn into a billion dollar idea.

QUOTE: “[Mark Zuckerberg] knew that [Facebook] was a good idea, but he didn’t know it would turn into a billion dollar idea.


VIII. NOT with a cliche

Cliches should be avoided, but if used, they definitely should not be surrounded by quotes. For one, a cliche is already a violation of style–aim to be unique–and by surrounding a cliche with quotes, the writer highlights this offense. Second, and even worse, the quotes indicate that the writer knew about the violation and went ahead with it anyway. The quotes seem to be asking the reader to forgive the writer for such an offense. But quotes are not meant as an entreaty for forgiveness.

INCORRECT: The problem is similar to “searching for a needle in a haystack.”


IX. NOT To add emphasis

Store signs and billboards incorrectly use quotation marks to add emphasis to the words, often with unintended comical repercussions. This is not correct and should not be imitated. There is also an entire blog dedicated to this fault.

INCORRECT: Sale “Fresh” Apples

INCORRECT: Don’t let “back” pain keep you from enjoying the summer.

INCORRECT: Produce for “you”