How to use quotation marks correctly – that is the question. My clients often tell me they aren’t completely sure. Should they be “double” or ‘single’? And which type is better to use in certain circumstances? The answer isn’t a one-liner, unfortunately. It all depends on what you want them to do.
How to use quotation marks to quote someone
This is the easiest place to start because we’re talking about the literal use of quotation marks. What we usually want them to do is to indicate a direct quotation or, in other words, to quote what someone has said or written.
When a quotation is part of the sentence you are writing (in-line quotation), you can use either single or double quotation marks around the words (spoken or written) that you are quoting. Look at these examples:
He told his students that the use of single or double quotation marks ‘was entirely a matter of personal choice’.
She emphasised that “consistency was the most important thing”, and left it totally up to them.
This rule applies to dialogue as well.
‘I prefer single quotation marks’, he said.
“Doubles work better for me”, she replied.
Some people prefer double quotation marks when writing dialogue and quoting spoken words, but use the single type for quoting short excerpts from text books or articles.
Personally, I think single quotation marks always look neater. Whatever you choose, though, be consistent!
Be consistent, except when…
There’s an exception to the consistency rule. When there is a quotation inside a quotation it’s advisable to use the opposite type of quotation mark from the one you’ve been using generally. This applies to in-line quotations and to dialogue. These examples will illustrate the point:
‘Management structures in all companies were “top-down and rigid” according to one analyst, who was interviewed during the study’ (Smith, 2020).
“I asked him why, but he wouldn’t tell me and just said, ‘Mind your own business'”, said Lucy.
The example above is correct, but visually unappealing, because a single quotation mark is followed by a double. This can be avoided easily, by rearranging the sentence.
“I asked him why, but he just said, ‘Mind your own business’, and wouldn’t tell me”, said Lucy.
When quotations are longer, perhaps more than a line of text, you should separate them from the rest of the paragraph, on a new, indented line. In that case you don’t use quotation marks at all. Some people like to put quotations of this type into italics. Again, it’s a matter of choice.
What’s the correct punctuation to use?
The answer to this question rather depends on the version of English you are using.
Version 1: British/Australian English
Most punctuation, except question marks and exclamation points, is placed outside the quotation marks.
‘I can’t wait to try this out’, she said.
Immediately, he asked, ‘Can I go next?’
Version 2: US English
Punctuation is placed inside the quotation marks. US English users also tend to prefer double quotation marks.
“Where did it all go wrong?” he asked.
“I can’t explain it,” she replied.
Even though this distinction is generally agreed upon, you will almost always find Version 2 in books and magazines – regardless of their country of origin. And, just to make it more confusing, print publications also tend to use single quotation marks.
Upper or lower case?
The general rule is that the first quoted word starts with an upper case letter, as in all the examples above.
There are two exceptions:
When the first quoted word is not the beginning of a sentence, as in:
The writer agreed that ‘the process was always slower in the early stages‘.
When a complete sentence of dialogue is divided into two parts by narrated words, as in:
‘I will do it’, he said, ‘when I am ready’.
If you are quoting someone or using dialogue in your writing, make sure you know how to use quotations marks, and the punctuation that goes with them.
As you can see, it’s not an exact science, but if consistency is your keyword you will be able to ‘quote with confidence’.