Single Quotes or Double Quotes: A Grammar Guide

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Just because we communicate in English doesn’t always mean we use punctuation the same way. Americans use a colon to denote time (4:30) while the British use a period (4.30). Titles such as Mr., Mrs., Ms. and Dr. all receive a period at the end in American English, while British English leaves off the punctuation mark.

And when it comes to single quotes or double quotes, we face the same problem of not being the same. Should you use single quotes or double quotes for dialogue, for quoting inside a quote, for scare quotes?

That depends on which side of the pond you live.

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Single Quotes or Double Quotes: Dialogue

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When it comes to capturing dialogue on paper, American writers should always use double quotes. British writers often use single quotes when it comes to writing dialogue, however there are instances where a British publisher chooses to adopt the American double quotation mark formatting.

American: “I love this chocolate cake,” he said.

British: ‘I love this chocolate cake,’ he said.

Single Quotes or Double Quotes: Quote Inside a Quote

American writers use single quotation marks when quoting inside a quote because the main dialogue is captured with double quotation marks.

American: “He said, ‘I’m never coming back’ and left,” Jan replied.

Now it’s time to reverse it. British writers use double quotation marks when quoting inside a quote because the main dialogue is captured with single quotation marks.

British: ‘He said, “I’m never coming back” and left,’ Jan replied.

If a single quote is next to a double quote, no space should be inserted between the punctuation marks.

American: Jan replied, “he said ‘I’m never coming back.’”

Single Quotes or Double Quotes: Scare Quotes & Emphasis

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Scare quotes are words or phrases enclosed within quotation marks in order to capture that the word or phrase is used ironically or in an atypical way.

Be it for emphasis or for scare quotes, American writers use double quotation marks while British writers use single quotation marks.

American: Cheryl couldn’t wait for Curt to give the “right” answer.

British: Cheryl couldn’t wait for Curt to give the ‘right’ answer.

Periods & Commas: Inside or Outside the Quote?

In American formatting, commas and periods always go inside the quotation marks, be it single quotes or double quotes.

In British formatting, periods and commas stay outside of the outside of the quotation marks for scare quotes and quotes within a quote. However, commas and periods stay inside the quotation marks for dialogue.

American: Darrel did not think the party was “a good time.”

British: Darrel did not think the party was ‘a good time’.

Exceptions to the Rule

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This grammar guide covers general usage of single quotes or double quotes in daily communication as well as in publications including books, newspapers and magazines.

Keep in mind that certain disciplines follow their own set of formatting rules. Specialties such as linguistics, theology and philosophy often use single quotation marks for emphasis and leave the punctuation outside of the quotes. For these fields, I recommend that you consult the industry guidelines on how to use single quotation marks and double quotation marks.

What tricks do you use to remember if you should use single quotes or double quotes? Share your advice in the comments section below.

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