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Monday, February 22, 2010

Single or Double Quotation Marks?

Quotation Marks
Whether to use single or double quotation marks is one of those questions that keeps on cropping up on my forum (most recently in this topic). So I thought I'd share my thoughts on the issue here.

Quotation marks (also called inverted commas) are, of course, used primarily to show direct speech:

"What shall we do now?" Mary asked.

Whether to use single or double quotation marks is a stylistic rather than a grammatical matter - some authors (and publishing houses) prefer one style, others the alternative. There is a slight tendency for US publishers to favour double quotes, UK publishers single ones, but you can find exceptions on both sides of the Atlantic.

My advice to writers would be as follows...

1. If you are writing for a particular publisher and they have a house style guide, use whatever style is recommended in that.

2. Otherwise, simply pick the style you are more comfortable with and use it consistently throughout your manuscript.

3. Use the other style for quotes within quotes. If you are using double marks normally, for example, use single marks for quotes within quotes:

"You said 'Nobody will have to pay' but I'm already out of pocket," John grumbled.

4. Don't use one style of quotation mark for one purpose, the other for something different (representing thoughts, for example). There is no grammatical basis for this, and it will make your work look amateurish. (See Representing Thoughts in Fiction for my views on this subject.)

5. Wherever possible try to avoid using "apologetic" quotation marks (like the ones in this sentence). Occasionally there is little alternative, but most of the time they are unnecessary or can be avoided by a more precise choice of words. Again, using a lot of apologetic quotation marks will make your writing look amateurish.

Any other comments or queries about quotation marks, please leave them as comments below!

Photo credit: Anniebee on Flickr

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Anonymous Karl said...

Brilliant blog post, Nick. Answers a lot of questions, and should really "help" people. Karl ;)

1:24 PM  
Blogger Nick said...

Many thanks, Karl. In view of your kind words, I'll excuse the apologetic quotation marks in your comment!

1:55 PM  
Anonymous ChickLitAuthor said...

Thanks for this tip, I was wondering about this issue.... personally, I like "double" quotation marks, because then you can emphasise something such as sarcasm with single quotation marks.

6:25 AM  
Blogger rodgriff said...

If you are in to punctuating quotes, maybe you can answer this one. If the quote ends with a question mark does the next letter always have to be a capital? Some grammar checker programs do it one way other the other.
In your piece you have
"What shall we do now?" Mary asked.
so that doesn't resolve it. because Mary carries a capital anyway. what about he said. Is it He said or he said? I've heard cogent explanations as to why each should be true. I'm in England if that makes a difference.

7:17 AM  
Blogger pneal said...

I also found this explanation from the University of Sussex, which is in line with what my professors at University College London taught me:

3:42 PM  
Blogger Nick said...

Thanks for the comments...

@ChickLitAuthor - Fair point, although equally if you use single quotes, you could use doubles for quotes within quotes, e.g. 'Is that your "luxury sports car"?' Clare asked contemptuously.

Incidentally, another advantage of using doubles is that, if you use singles, they can get confused with apostrophes. If you have an apostrophe near the end of a quotation, with single quotes the reader might momentarily be fooled into thinking the quote is over.

@rodgriff - It depends whether the speech tag is part of the same sentence or not. If it is, then the 'he said' or whatever should start with a lower-case letter:

"It's time to go," he said.

But if it's a new sentence, an initial capital is required:

"It's time to go." He paused, then pulled a map out of his pocket. "I think I've seen a short-cut we could follow."

@pneal - Thanks for the link. Yes, sensible advice.

11:10 AM  
Blogger Nick said...

Just realised I didn't answer @rodgriff's question properly.

A question mark can serve as EITHER a full stop or a comma. So, as stated above, it all depends whether what follows the quote is part of the same sentence or not.

"What shall we do now?" he asked. [All one sentence]

"What shall we do now?" He threw the map into the fire.
[Two separate sentences]

Hope that helps!

11:24 AM  
Blogger fourfourfun said...

Useful, I'm always putting stuff in quotes "for the lols" and now I'll take a bit more time to revise what I'm writing rather than resort to that. Or at least restrict what I'm using them on.

6:06 PM  

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