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Single vs. Double Quotation Marks

Updated on January 13, 2023Grammar

In American English, we use double quotation marks ( “ ” ) in most situations and single quotation marks ( ‘ ’ ) only for quotes within quotes or certain titles within quotes. In other words, double quotation marks are usually correct, although using single versus double quotation marks in England is a little different.

But the question remains: When exactly do you use double quotation marks, and when do you use single quotation marks? Below, we explain the rules for when to use each, and we’ll even discuss the differences between quotation marks in British English and American English.

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Single vs. double quotation marks: What’s the difference?

In form, quotation marks (or simply “quotes” for short) are just commas, elevated to the top of a text line instead of at the bottom. Single quotation marks use only one comma—they look just like the apostrophe—while double quotation marks use two commas right next to each other. The direction the quotation marks face depends on whether they come at the beginning or end of the quote.

In writing, single and double quotation marks appear like this:

According to the teacher, the test would be “the most difficult exam of the year.”

“Our teacher called it ‘the most difficult exam of the year,’” Almir complained to his parents.

So how do you know when to use single versus double quotation marks? Let’s take a look at each separately so you know when to use them.

When should you use double quotation marks?

Double quotation marks in American English have five purposes:

1 Indicate that a passage or word is copied verbatim from another source (a direct quote)

2 Show dialogue or transcribe speech

3 Signal the titles of short works, like poems or songs

4 Set apart a word, usually to signify irony, sarcasm, or skepticism

5 Differentiate a nickname from a given name

Let’s take a look at each of these individually.

Quoting a source

Double quotation marks show that a passage of text is copied word-for-word from another source. If you’re using another person’s text in your writing, put the copied words in between double quotation marks.

James Daybell insists Shakespeare was educated because of how he wrote female characters, which “depict women across the social spectrum composing, reading, or delivering letters.”

If punctuation had personalities, you might say that quotation marks are good for advice because they’re always sharing the wisdom of others through quotes.

Keep in mind that quotation marks are unnecessary for indirect or paraphrased speech. They’re only used to indicate a direct quote, so if you’re rephrasing what someone said in your own words, you don’t need them.

James Daybell insists Shakespeare was educated because his writing depicts women across the socioeconomic spectrum as literate.

For passages of more than a paragraph, use an opening quotation mark at the beginning of each new paragraph and a single closing quotation mark at the end. Alternatively, you can set off the passage a different way, such as indenting it further than the other text or setting it in italics.

Showing dialogue or speech

Like quoting other sources, double quotation marks are also used when you quote speech and dialogue. Quotation marks for dialogue are common in fiction writing to show a conversation between characters, while nonfiction articles use them to transcribe speech from eyewitnesses or interviews.

“Would you like a receipt?” the cashier asked robotically.

Again, if you’re paraphrasing a direct quote, you don’t need quotation marks.

The cashier asked if I wanted a receipt.

Signifying titles

Another use of double quotation marks is for the titles of short works. Typically, quotation marks are used for poems, songs, articles, short stories, essays, and episode titles. For long works like books, movies, plays, periodical names, and music albums, use italics instead.

“For Esmé—with Love and Squalor” is my favorite short story from J. D. Salinger’s book Nine Stories.

You can see a complete list of which types of works use quotation marks for titles here.

Setting words apart

Have you ever seen quotation marks around a single word that’s not a quote and wondered what it means? Sometimes, it’s a way to make a word or phrase stand out, usually to show that it does not use its literal meaning.

Use double quotation marks to set apart words, especially for the purposes of irony, sarcasm, skepticism, or other nonstandard uses. When they’re used this way, these are known as “scare quotes,” and they typically express doubt in the validity of the word, with the same meaning as “so-called.”

My daughter made me a “coffee mug” in art class, although it looked more like a bowl.

Our “boss” is technically Arnold, but it’s Vera who’s really in charge.

Scare quotes are considered casual language, so don’t use them in formal papers like academic writing.

Aside from their use as scare quotes, double quotation marks can also show that a word is being discussed as a word, without regard to its actual meaning. This is common in our Grammarly blog, where we often talk about word usage.

“They’re” and “their” are pronounced the same, but they’re two different words.

Nicknames

Last, double quotation marks also differentiate nicknames from given names. They typically surround the nickname when it comes between a person’s first and last names in writing.

Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson can’t escape his origins as a wrestler.

When should you use single quotation marks?

In contrast to double quotation marks, single quotation marks only have one purpose: They replace double quotation marks inside of other quotation marks. This is typically seen in quotes within quotes, such as when you’re quoting a person who’s quoting another person.

The speaker told us, “Whenever I’m feeling down, I remember what the poet Rumi said: ‘You are not one drop in the ocean. You are the ocean in one drop.’”

Notice how the single quotation marks work just like double quotation marks, but only within another pair of quotation marks. If we take the Rumi quote out of the original quote, it uses double quotation marks as normal.

Whenever I’m feeling down, I remember what the poet Rumi said: “You are not one drop in the ocean. You are the ocean in one drop.”

We do this simply for the sake of clarity. If we used double quotation marks inside double quotation marks, it would be difficult to tell when one quote ended and another began. Alternating single and double quotation marks makes reading easier.

This also applies to titles, when a short work uses the name of another short work in its title. For example, say you’re researching a Robert Frost poem and you find an essay you want to discuss. Its title, when you refer to it, would look like this:

“A Retrospective on ‘The Road Not Taken’ and Its Themes”

When we talk about “The Road Not Taken” on its own, we use the normal double quotation marks. However, when we talk about it inside other quotes, we use single quotation marks.

However, if the main title is in italics, as with books, we use the standard double quotation marks for titles within that. For example, a book that collects short stories:

Farnsworth’s “A Haunted Mansion,” Everdeen’s “Black Cats,” and Other Ghostly Tales

Quotation marks in American English vs. British English

All the above rules apply to quotation marks in America—and the majority of Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. But what about British English?

Quotation marks in British English reverse single and double quotation marks, so single quotation marks are the standard, and double quotation marks are used only for a quote within a quote.

American English: “The chef told me, ‘Anything you order is free,’” I said to the waiter.

British English: ‘The chef told me, “Anything you order is free,”’ I said to the waiter.

Otherwise, the rules are the same.

Single vs. double quotation marks FAQs

How are single quotation marks and double quotation marks used?

Double quotation marks in American English are used for direct quotes, dialogue, titles of short works, the emphasis of certain words, and separating nicknames from given names. Single quotation marks are used to replace double quotation marks when they’re inside of other double quotation marks.

What’s the difference between quotation marks in American English and British English?

Single quotation marks and double quotation marks are reversed in British English. While double quotation marks are the standard in American English, single quotation marks are standard in British English. That means double quotation marks in England are only used to replace single quotation marks within quotes.

When should you use single quotation marks in US English?

Single quotation marks are only used inside double quotation marks. They follow the same rules as other quotes, but only when replacing double quotation marks. Typically they show quotes within quotes, as when one person is quoting what another person said.

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