An introduction to usage

Quotation marks are often confusing to ESL writers unfamiliar with English grammar and punctuation rules. When to use double or single quotation marks is even trickier. However, there's no need to be embarrassed—these upside down commas sometimes confuse even the most seasoned English writers!

How do I know if I should use double and single quotation marks?

This is a very interesting question. The short answer is that it depends on what country you are writing in. In British and Australian English, one typically uses single quotation marks. If writing in North America, double quotation marks are typically used.

However, sometimes a publisher's or even an author's style may take precedence over such general preferences. In Copy-Editing, Judith Butcher points out that some writers have their own system of quotation marks, e.g., double quotation marks for speech and single quotation marks for thoughts. The most important rule when using these little punctuation marks is that the style of the opening and closing quotation marks match, e.g., 'Good morning, Mary,' called Adrian, or "Good morning, Stephen," called Jane.

One of the common ESL mistakes we encounter is the misuse of quotation marks. If quotations are distinguished only by the use of quotation marks and you are quoting more than one paragraph, use an opening quote at the beginning of each paragraph.

Should I use double or single quotation marks for quotes within quotes?

Incorrect Quotation MarksFirst things first; decide whether you will use double or single quotation marks for the initial quote. If you use single quotations marks, then you should use double quotation marks for a quote within a quote. If you use double quotation marks, then you should use single quotation marks for a quote within a quote. For example:

"When I say 'immediately,' I mean some time before August," said the manager.

"Why did she call the man a 'traitor'?" 

Do I use double or single quotation marks for block quotations?

You do not usually need opening and closing quotation marks to punctuate material set off from the main text as a block quotation. Block quotations are typically either indented or put in a smaller font. Quotations within the block will have double or single quotes, according to the convention being used (British or American). As usual, these different conventions for closing punctuation complicate things. Compare the following two examples:

From the Chicago Manual of Style,

The narrator then breaks in:

Imagine Bart's surprise, dear reader, when Emma turned to him and said, contemptuously, "What 'promise'?"

And from Hart's Rules,

'The passing crowd' is a phrase coined in the spirit of indifference. Yet, to a man of what Plato calls 'universal sympathies,' and even to the plain, ordinary denizens of this world, what can be more interesting than those who constitute 'the passing crowd'?

I'm writing in a very specialized field; should I use quotation marks for specialized terms?

In much specialist writing, including linguistics, philosophy, and theology, terms with particular meanings that are unique to that subject are often enclosed in single quotation marks:

The inner margins of a book are called the 'gutter.'

Many people do not realize that 'cultivar' is synonymous with 'clone.'

However, it is still important not to confuse your readers by including too many of these little punctuation marks. Inserting quotation marks may not be essential to your argument. The names of horticultural cultivars, however, should usually be enclosed in single quotation marks:

An example of an apple is 'Jonathon,' of a grape, 'Chardonnay,' and of the Gallica rose, 'Rosa Munda.' 

A final word on whether to use double or single quotation marks

While quotations are necessary for most types of writing, too many quotation marks, whether double or single quotation marks, can make your writing seem heavy-handed. To ensure quotation marks have been properly used in your writing, consider sending it to the professionals at Scribendi for proofreading.

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