Quotation marks – sometimes called quotes, speech marks or inverted commas – are used to set off text representing dialogue or directly quoted material. They are also used to highlight irony, words being discussed, contextual variance, and short titles (although this last function is best left to italics).

There are two types of quotation mark: the single (‘ ’) and the double (“ ”). In computer jargon these are called curly quotes and must never be confused with the typewriter or straight quotes (' and "), which should only be used for:

  • feet and inches [5'2", eyes of blue]
  • map or trigonometric references [26°2'11" or 26 degrees, 2 minutes, 11 seconds]
  • computer programming [<font size="2" face="san-serif">].

Unfortunately, these typographically unappealing straight quotes appear on the main character set of the computer keyboard because of its historical development from the manual typewriter. The typewriter used one-directional (or ambidextrous) straight quotes to save keys – sad, but true.

Once again, we have a variety of traditions and styles regarding the use of quotes. In North America there is a consistent (if sometimes illogical) usage. In Britain there are two warring factions, and in Australia we tend to follow one of the British traditions – sometimes. In reality, there are only two questions to ask when quotation marks are needed:

  1. Do we use single or double quotation marks?
  2. Where do we place punctuation in relation to the quotation marks in direct speech and quoted material?

Single or double?

In North America, the primary quotation level is set off with double quotes, and secondary (or embedded) quotations use single quotation marks:

The sub-editor frowned at us and said, “When Oscar Wilde wrote, ‘consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative,’ I’m sure he was not talking about copyeditors!” [USA]

British book publishers (but not universities or newspapers) and Australian style-guides reverse this:

The sub-editor frowned at us and said, ‘When Oscar Wilde wrote, “consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative”, I’m sure he was not talking about copyeditors!’ [UK/Aus – note where the comma is placed after the word ‘unimaginative’.]

Let me nail my colours to the mast – I prefer the first. There are a number of reasons for this, but here are the two most important:

  1. Since single quotes are often used for contextual focus, slang and irony, we lose this distinction where they are also used as quotation marks – particularly where these usages are combined. Additionally, single quotes are often the preferred device for emphasis and titles, though the contemporary use of italics helps here somewhat.
  2. Since the much-used apostrophe is indistinguishable from a single right quote, there can often be confusion when both are used in quoted material.

Since it is the job of punctuation and typography to help readers rather than confuse them, there can be little justification in adopting single inverted commas as the primary quotation mark. The following examples demonstate how their use is typographically unsightly when mixed with possessive words, contractions and highlighted text:

  • ‘He be ‘gone’ to Davy Jones’ Locker,’ the pirate sneered. [By ‘gone’ he meant ‘dead’ – and the reader will also be ‘gone’ trying to work this out.]
  • My neighbour called to my children, ‘I’m sorry boys, but those bikes are my girls’’. [Girls’ here is possessive, so the apostrophe forms an unintended double quote – and let’s not even mention the opening ‘I’m …]
  • He waxed lyrical: ‘’Twas the Ides of March, and the victory was Brutus’.’ [Here we have complete confusion at the opening quote!]
  • Lynne Truss says in her book Eats, Shoots & Leaves: ‘There is a difference between saying someone is “out of sorts” … and ‘out of sorts’’. [Sorry, Lynne!]
  • Calgacus addressed his warriors. ‘The Romans say they come to bring us ‘civilization’;’ he shouted, his tone full of sarcasm, ‘but Rome’s idea of ‘civilization’ is to create a desolation and call it ‘peace’!’ [Sorry, Tacitus.]

My recommendation: use double quotation marks for dialogue and quoted material; use single quotation marks for quotes-within-quotes, irony, highlighting context and slang. Also, exclusively use italics for emphasis and artistic titles and not quotation marks. I use these styles throughout this website except where alternative examples are supplied.

Where to punctuate

In North American usage, full stops and commas appear inside the quotation marks, regardless of how this fits the sense:

She likes to say, “You’re only as young as you feel.” [USA]
She likes to say, ‘You’re only as young as you feel’. [UK/Aus]

As you can see, the British/Australian version applies the punctuation to the sentence and not the quote. However, for all other punctuation (question marks, exclamations and colons) the British system is used, even in the US. With that in mind, here are some rules for using quotation marks:

  1. Use them before and after direct speech:
    • “I’m going to the shops,” she said. [Commas are placed inside the end quotation mark where direct speech is followed by an attribution (e.g. she said).]
    • He murmured, “Please pass the sugar.” [A full stop is placed inside the end quotation mark if the dialogue is introduced by an attribution – there is no need to place another outside: “… sugar.”.]
    • Did he just say, “It’s time for dinner”? [The question mark is not part of the quote.]
    • “I can’t stay,” Jill whispered. “I must get home.”
    • The defence lawyer stated that while the prosecution had tried to besmirch her client’s reputation, Mr Smith had “a long record of service to the community”. [In this form of quote, no colon or comma is used to introduce the quote, a capital letter is not used for the first word, and the full stop is placed outside the end quotation mark.]
    Note: for each change of speaker in running dialogue, start a new, indented line:
    “Harry, I'm going to the shops,” she called from the front door. “I’ll take the car, so I won't be long.”
        “Are we out of groceries?” he asked.
        “Just bread and milk. Is there anything you would like?”
        “Oh, yes please. Would you pick me up a copy of the paper and this month’s edition of Macworld if you’re passing the newsagent?” he asked. “Oh, and don’t forget we’re off to the movies at three o’clock!”
        “Of course, dear,” she said. “If you could just make a nice cup of tea for me for when I return, that would be sweet.”
        “Will do. Hurry back, dear.” [Apologies to Mills & Boon.]
  2. They are optional for silent speech, but should not be used for indirect quotations:
    • I must be mad, Henry thought to himself. [Acceptable]
    • “I must be mad,” Henry thought to himself. [Acceptable]
    • I must be mad, Henry thought to himself. [Best]
    • She must be thinking this is fantastic. [Correct]
    • She must be thinking, “This is fantastic”. [Incorrect]
  3. They can be used to mark titles of songs, books, movies, etc.:
    • The Beatle’s song ‘Penny Lane’ was a huge hit. [Prefer single quotes, though doubles are, inexplicably, the choice for many publishers.]
    • Featured films this week are: ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Lethal Weapon’.
    • ‘The Lamb’ is one of William Blake’s best-loved poems.
    Note: modern practice prefers the use of italics for titles – Hamlet; Oliver Twist; Quantum of Solace.
  4. Use them to mark words, letters and symbols being discussed, as well as slang:
    • George, how do you spell ‘punctuation’?
    • In Australia, an idiot is known as a ‘drongo’.
    • Americans (and the OED) use a ‘z’ when spelling ‘-ise’ words.
    Note: never use quotation marks to emphasise words. That is the job of italics:
    • Today we have ‘fantastic’ bargains at the store. [Wrong]
    • The Congressman gave his ‘word’ that he would keep his campaign promises. [Wrong on two counts.]
  5. Use quotes to highlight irony, or words not being used in their current or usually accepted context:
    • So, I suppose you’re too ‘busy’ to help me? [I know you’re not.]
    • The dead were just ‘collateral damage’. [They were really ‘innocent victims’.]
    • He rang his wife to tell her he was ‘working late’. [Sure he was.]
    • In the 15th century, science ‘knew’ the world was flat. [‘Knowing’, apparently, was different back then.]

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