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What is the Difference Between Single and Double Quotation Marks?

By Brendan McGuigan
Updated May 23, 2024
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Single and double quotation marks are two different forms of a common typographic mark, and knowing when to use them can be a bit tricky at first. Matters of style are always up for a great deal of debate, and the choice of single or double quotation marks is largely stylistic, but with a bit of knowledge you can understand why some people choose to use one over the other.

First, let’s define what exactly these marks are. Double quotation marks are what most Americans think of as simply quotation marks, two lines that may be straight or curved, enclosing text "like this." Single quotation marks, on the other hand, are the one-lined version of these, either a single straight line, or a single curved line, which the British usually refer to as an inverted comma, 'like this.' Strictly speaking, both single and double quotation marks should be of the curved variety, but it is more and more common to see apostrophes and straight-quotation marks, the straight-lined counterparts, used as quotation marks as well.

In American English, the most basic rule of single and double quotation marks is simply that double quotation marks should be used by default for enclosing quotations. Single quotation marks, on the other hand, are used for enclosing quotations that exist within quotations. In British English, however, this standard rule is inverted, with the default mode being the inverted comma, and double quotation marks being used only for quotes within quotes. Over time, however, this has gradually shifted, and it is now not uncommon to see many followers of British English begin with double quotation marks.

The different types of quotation marks may also be used as a way to offset a single word or phrase within a sentence, when nothing is actually being quoted. This is usually meant to denote that the writer is intending the word in an ironic or sarcastic matter. It may be used for other reasons as well, however, such as in the sentence: On the map, 'X' marked the spot.

Here again, we have a cultural difference on when to use single and double quotation marks. The American standard is still largely to use double quotation marks for offsetting a word, sometimes referred to as a "scare quote," while the British standard is to use inverted commas. This distinction is largely retained, and it is relatively rare to see a writer of British English use double quotation marks to offset a single word or phrase.

This is all even further complicated by the fact that Americans often use the British standard of the single quotation mark when offsetting a word. And, when single or double marks are used for this purpose, it is common to also adopt the British standard of placing punctuation outside the quotation mark, as in ending a sentence with 'like this'. Normally in American English punctuation is placed within quotation marks.

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Discussion Comments
By anon974882 — On Oct 21, 2014

In secondary/high school (1993-98), we were only taught about double quotation marks. No one mentioned single quotation marks!

By anon926255 — On Jan 17, 2014

The distinction advocated by anon151705 in Post 3 and by anon295183 in Post 5 is superficially attractive but actually meaningless. Take the example given: The small town of Butterfly is known to the locals as "the gathering place". Surely, this amounts to quoting the words of the locals. If so, why should this have punctuation any different from any other quotation?

In Post 5, anon295183 suggests that using scare quotes (quotation marks to signal irony or authorial distance) implies the term "so-called". If this is so, does it not follow that someone at some time did the calling - that is to say, the words are (originally or notionally) a quotation? I'm not keen on the use of quotation marks to signal irony - to my ear, it always sounds a little sneering - but if you do use them, there's no reason to use anything different from your normal usage.

To the best of my knowledge, single quotation marks were invented by 19th-century newspapers seeking to save a little space in headlines. There's no meaningful distinction between single and double quotation marks. Use whichever looks better to you (or is preferred by the people you're writing for), but be consistent and reserve the other for quotations within quotations.

For what it's worth, I live in Britain but prefer double inverted commas, primarily to avoid potential confusion with apostrophes, as in 'He went to a leading boys' school'. Anything that obstructs the flow of reading like this will potentially confuse readers and therefore should be avoided! The sentence is immediately clearer with double inverted commas: "He went to a leading boys' school."

By healthy4life — On Feb 22, 2013

I only use single quotation marks to set apart a quote within a quotation. The following sentence is an example: I told her, “Celia said, 'Take me to the grocery store.' She said nothing about going to the bank.”

I put the punctuation outside the marks in both spots. However, if the single mark had ended at the same spot as the double mark, I would have put the single mark before the period and the double mark after it.

So, sometimes single quotation marks can go before periods, and sometimes they can follow them. It all depends on whether or not double quotation marks are being used, too.

By wavy58 — On Feb 21, 2013

@DylanB – That's probably because you are not alone. I know that many teachers use single quotation marks on single words in sentences, so your teachers probably thought this was just fine.

Actually, there are so many different styles of grammar within any given country that I don't think there's any way to reconcile them all. We all use quotation marks the way we were taught to use them in school, and kids in different schools were likely trained to use them differently.

By DylanB — On Feb 21, 2013

I have always used single quotation marks to offset one word in a sentence. I didn't know that double quotation marks were normally used, and no teacher has ever corrected me on this.

By seag47 — On Feb 20, 2013

I grew up in America, and we learned in school that in this country, it is incorrect to place the punctuation outside of the quotation marks. That is just how we do things here.

I don't think there is a particularly correct or incorrect way of using quotation marks, since different cultures have different methods. I just adhere to the American way of writing because I live here, and so do my readers.

By anon295183 — On Oct 05, 2012

Single quotation: Implying that a word is a double entendre. It has two meanings. In other word, so-called.

Example: That 'beast' in my classroom always bully me.

Double quotation: Used in speech.

Example: My mom told me, "Never speak to any stranger."

By anon151705 — On Feb 11, 2011

Dear anon125003: Using punctuation correctly, and by that I mean the British way, is hardly "really, really pretentious". It simply means you know how to use punctuation correctly and are not falling back on the apparent sheer laziness, or lack of education, of American authors.

It's so easy: quotation marks enclose a quote. A quote is written speech. Speech is written like this: She said, "I'm so glad you asked that question". Inverted commas are used when one wants to use a word ironically, or define a name. For example: the small town of Butterfly is known to the locals as 'the gathering place' or, this book was 'so exciting' I fell asleep at chapter three.

As one has to use an inverted comma at the beginning and the end, they are referred to as commas. This is no way implies that there are two of them at the beginning and the end. A single comma is used to indicate a pause in a sentence. There is an unstated pause when naming something or being ironical.

Why one thinks a single comma suddenly becomes a double when inverted is bizarre. Only speech, a quote, goes in double marks and that's why they are called quotation marks.

By anon125003 — On Nov 08, 2010

Even that can be confusing. I've submitted manuscripts to journals published in England and found that they change the English (both spelling and punctuation) to conform to their style. I always worry that readers will think I'm a British transplant to Ohio or just really, really pretentious.

By mitchell14 — On Nov 07, 2010

One good thing about this difference is that, as a book nerd, I can easily tell if the book I'm reading was written by an American or British author, or if it was published in America or a country that prefers British English rules. It can be confusing, however, when trying to teach the rules to someone who does not know them.

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