When to Use Single Quotes vs. Double Quotes (With Examples)

Single and double quotation marks use varies depending on the country you are writing within, and keeping the basic rules of these punctuation marks can be confusing. 

Since this site is dedicated to the grammar rules associated with the US, we are going to focus on the differences between single and double quotes about American English conventional uses. But, keep in mind that although the US defaults to double quotation marks, single quotation marks are more popularly used in British English. 

Quotation Marks Explained

Double and single quotations are punctuation marks used to enclose direct quotations (double) and quotes within direct quotes (single). This commonly used mark provides interest and support to an argument or research and signifies dialog within a written text. They are required when using other people’s words and ideas in your own writing. 

When to Use Double Quotation Marks

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Double quotation marks are required to include direct quotes within blocks of text. They are used to represent the borrowing of a person’s exact speech, thoughts, and words as a whole sentence or as a phrase within another complete sentence. 

Quotation marks indicate credit to the originator of the words and keeps the author of the material from claiming it as their own. They can be used as an introductory, concluding, or interrupting expression within text.  

For example:

  • “I expect nothing but your best,” exclaimed Professor Sims on the first day of class.
  • The professor addressed his class on the very first day, demanding “the very best attendance and attention to assignments [the students] have to offer.”
  • My college level biology class was challenging, starting with my professor’s statements concerning, “difficult assignments requiring extra lab time,” which was very stressful. 

Quotation marks for titles can also indicate smaller titles of works, such as a chapter title within a larger piece of work. Or, a song title within an album. 

For example:

  • My favorite chapter from The Day Must End was “A Marked Beginning, Again.”

When to Use Single Quotation Marks

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Single marks are reserved to indicate quotations used within quotations. 

For example:

  • According to Smith, “according to the Captain, Roberts indicated a ‘true lack of experience and knowledge’ when he questioned the explicit directions“; which caused the guests to have less than an ideal charter.

How to Use Punctuation Within Quotation Marks

Whether you use double or single quotation marks, you need to follow a few basic punctuation rules

Commas

Depending on whether the comma follows introductory, concluding, or interrupting expressions determines whether it belongs inside or outside the quotations mark. 

A comma is placed outside the quotation mark when it follows an introductory or interrupting expression. 

For example:

  • He replied to her question in anger, exclaiming, “it doesn’t matter how it is done as long as it is done.” 

A comma is placed inside the quotation mark when followed by a concluding expression.

For example:

  • “I asked you because you told me to do it your way,” she responded calmly. 

Periods

Periods are always placed inside the quote marks when you end a sentence in quotation marks.

For example:

  • She was shocked when her mother told her she could use her “best judgment on what time to get back home.” 

Semicolons/Colons

Semicolons and colons always belong on the outside of closing quotation marks unless they are part of the direct quote. 

For example:

  • Bob hated the disrespect he was shown when his brother said, “I’ve always been our parent’s favorite child”; it highlighted the discord that had always existed between them. 

Question/Exclamation Marks

Question marks and exclamation points always go outside the closing quotation marks unless included as part of a direct quote. 

For example:

  • Lily hated her curfew and tracked down her mother, exclaiming, “I’ll never be able to stay out as late as my friends! It’s not fair”!

Commonly Asked Questions

A few questions are commonly asked to help clarify quotation mark use. Block quotes,  emphasis on singular words, and apostrophes often cause confusion and may need further explanation. 

Do I Use Quotation Marks for Block Quotes?

When a quote of prose is longer than four lines, or poetry is longer than three lines, you use a block quote rather than quotation marks. A block quote is a freestanding quote that is offset from the rest of the text. 

For example:

  • From Henry David Thoreau

Light-winged Smoke! Icarian bird,

Melting thy pinions in thy upward flight;

Lark without song, and messenger of dawn,

Circling above the hamlets as thy nest;

Or else, departing dream, and shadowy form

Of midnight vision, gathering up thy skirts;

By night star-veiling, and by day

Darkening the light and blotting out the sun;

Go thou, my incense, upward from this hearth,

And ask the gods to pardon this clear flame.

Are Double Quotations the Same as Double Apostrophe Marks?

A single quotation mark is the same punctuation mark on the keyboard as an apostrophe (‘). However, to use a double quote mark in writing, you do not type two single apostrophes to form a double mark. The double quotation mark shares a key with the single quotation mark and is accessed when you hit the shift key followed by the quotation key. 

Although some people may incorrectly call it a double apostrophe, it is important to note that quotation marks indicate and report speech, while an apostrophe is used to indicate contractions and possession. 

Can I Use Single Quotation Marks for Emphasis of a Word?

Many authors use a single quotation to emphasize a single word or phrase, but this is frowned upon in all style guide suggestions. The idea of this use came about to add a specific tone to a written, such as irony or humor – and to highlight words that may be used or defined unexpectedly. 

Let’s Review

Double quotation marks indicate the use of direct speech from an outside source. They help support arguments and research and provide reference sources and information about where the words originated. 

Single quote marks are used to indicate quotes within quotes. Although some people use them to highlight singular words and phrases, this practice is not considered proper punctuation and is regarded as an unnecessary quotation mark use.

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