Single quotation marks are much less common than double quotation marks, especially in the U.S. but we’ll have more on that later when we look at the differences between British and American usage of single quotation marks. The problem with single quotation marks is that they are so under-used that people struggle to know when they ought to use them.
This guide will take you through everything you need to know, from what they are, when to use them, and common mistakes we see with single quotation marks all the time. We’ll also discuss British and American differences (they are big in this case) and then finish on a quiz like always!
Single Quotation Marks
What are Single Quotation Marks?
Single quotation marks look exactly like their double quotation mark counterparts (“) but there is only one of them (‘). We use single quotation marks for a variety of different reasons in American English, and we’ll cover this more specifically below.
When to Use Single Quotation Marks
In American English, we use single quotation marks on a much less frequent basis than in Britain. But there are two major reasons why we would use a single quotation mark, and here they are:
For Showing Quotations Within A Quotation
We use double quotation marks to show an entire quote that somebody said. For example:
- Mary had said, “Jenny is being horrible to me lately and I don’t know why.”
That is a format that we are all used to. However, things become a little more complicated if Mary provided some more information about what Jenny had said to her to make her feel that way. In other words, we’d have to include a quotation within a quotation. In this case, we use double quotation marks to show everything that Mary said, and single quotation marks to show just what Jenny had said to Mary. So it might look something like this:
- Mary had said, “Jenny is being horrible to me lately, she told me ‘you don’t dance as well as the other girls’ and I don’t know why.”
Notice how the single quotation marks are used for the quote within the quote, but the quote as a whole is in double quotation marks to show everything that Mary had said. Here are some more examples for you to look at and think more carefully about. Remember, focus on the relationship of the single quotation marks within the quote as a whole.
- Her son asked, “Why did you say ‘I’m not interested’ to that man before you heard what he had to sell?“
- “My mother once told me ‘nothing in life worth having is easy to get’ and I agree,” he told the audience.
The only exception to when we use double quotation marks to show what somebody directly said is within newspaper headlines. Whenever there is a news article and somebody is directly quoting somebody else, we use single quotation marks instead. Conversely, within the text, the standard double quotation marks will return. Headlines, however, might look like this:
- The President Urges Everyone To ‘Stay Calm’
- ‘It’s Now Or Never’ Says Local Business Owner
- There Will Be ‘Lower Taxes For Everyone’ Promises Local Candidate
When Not to Use Single Quotation Marks
In general, the above two examples (in American English at least) are the only two reasons to use single quotation marks. In all other scenarios, double quotation marks are best. But what can double quotation marks show? We’ll provide a brief overview below so you can see when double quotation marks should be used, so you know not to use single quotation marks.
Double Quotation Marks
Double quotation marks, in American English, have the following uses, and thus single quotation marks should not be used:
- To show direct speech. As in: Mary said, “It’s lovely weather today.“
- To show sarcasm or irony in a scare quote. As in: Jamie told another one of his “funny” jokes again.
Besides these two reasons, there are no other instances in which one might confuse single and double quotation marks. Remember, these rules only apply to American English, we’ll highlight the differences with British English later on, but for now just remember the different uses for single and double quotation marks, so you don’t confuse the two.
Common Mistakes with Single Quotation Marks
The most common mistakes that occur with all quotation marks, not just single, is an inconsistency in style. For example, if the following sentences appeared in the same piece from the same writer, it would be incorrect:
- Mary said, “I’ve always liked Carl. He said to me, ‘you’re one of my favorite people’ and it really made me smile.”
- Carl said, ‘Mary is so sweet. She told me, “we’ll be friends forever” and I thought that was really kind.’
You notice the difference? They’re inconsistent. If you use double quotation marks for the entire speech, and single quotation marks for quotes within quotes, then this is the style you should stick to. But why would you mix them up anyway? Well, that’s where American vs British English comes in, and it’s probably why there is so much confusion around quotation marks to begin with.
American vs. British Usage of Single Quotation Marks
Now, this may come as a shock to some of you. But, if you’re British, you would need to take everything we have just told you about single quotation marks and forget the lot. That’s right, everything we’ve just said is completely wrong in Britain. That’s because in British English double quotation marks and single quotation marks are used in the complete opposite way.
British English uses single quotation marks most often to show the entire quote. Like this:
- Mary said, ‘Jenny is being horrible to me lately and I don’t know why.‘
And for quotes within quotes? You guessed it, British English uses double quotation marks, like this:
- Mary said, ‘Jenny is being horrible to me lately, she told me “you don’t dance as well as the other girls” and I don’t know why.‘
Interestingly, British English still uses single quotation marks for headlines though, so it’s similar in that respect. British English also uses double quotation marks for scare quotes, as American English does. So whilst the major purposes of single and double quotation marks differ, the secondary purposes remain the same. And that, we’d bet, is why there’s so much confusion surrounding quotation marks to begin with. Hopefully, this guide has cleared things up for you though, and now we can finish with a little quiz to test that!
Single Quotation Marks | Infographic
Single Quotation Marks Quiz
Below, you must decide if the following sentences are correct or incorrect. If they are incorrect, then how should they be written? In the interest of fairness, we will test the American English way, as those are the rules we’ve focussed on most.
- Tim said, “John saying ‘we don’t need to study’ was irresponsible and I’m going to work hard anyway.”
- “It’s Time To Invest In Ourselves” Says President
- “I’m not scared of you. My Dad always said ‘a bully isn’t tough, they’re scared” so no, I’m not afraid of you,’ George said.
1. Correct. We use double quotation marks for the entire quote, and single quotation marks for the quote within a quote.
2. Incorrect. In headlines, we should always use single quotation marks. They do the same in British English, too. So it should be:
- ‘It’s Time To Invest In Ourselves’ Says President
3. Incorrect. We were deliberately inconsistent with the use of double and single quotation marks within this one sentence. Whilst it’s much less common to see inconsistencies within a single sentence, we wanted to highlight how important it is to be mindful of the correct use of double and single quotation marks, and to ensure you remain consistent throughout. It should be:
- “I’m not scared of you. My Dad always said ‘a bully isn’t tough, they’re scared’ so no, I’m not afraid of you,” George said.