In both American and British style, quotation marks enclose direct speech or a quotation, indicate irony, or show that a word is being used as itself in a sentence. Differences exist between the two styles in the use of single versus double quotation marks and whether other punctuation marks, like commas and periods, appear within or outside quotes.
Single vs. double quotes
In American (and often Canadian) style, direct speech, a quotation, or any other word or phrase is enclosed in double quotation marks. In British (and often Australian) formal writing and book publishing, text is enclosed in single quotes instead.
- American: Lulu said, “I’ll have the cake instead.”
British: Lulu said, ‘I’ll have the cake instead.’
- American: Dash believes in what she terms a “collective conscience.”
British: Dash believes in what she terms a ‘collective conscience’.
- American: That “vacation” was anything but.
British: That ‘vacation’ was anything but.
- American: That was a line from “Abundance” by Amy Schmidt.
British: That was a line from ‘Abundance’ by Amy Schmidt.
- American: I still don’t know what “baleful” means.
British: I still don’t know what ‘baleful’ means.
In US style, single quotes are used only to enclose a word that appears in text already inside double quotes (quotes within quotes). In British style, double quotes are used inside single quotes instead.
- American: Anita asked, “What do you mean by a ‘collective conscience’?”
British: Anita asked, ‘What do you mean by a “collective conscience”?’
- American: “This line,” said Maya, “is from a poem called ‘Abundance.’”
British: ‘This line’, said Maya, ‘is from a poem called “Abundance”.’ American: “What does ‘baleful’ mean?”
British: ‘What does “baleful” mean?’
An exception is British news copy, where double quotes enclose text generally, with single quotes serving as quotes within quotes (which is the same as US style). Single quotes are also used in headlines. The BBC and Guardian, for example, follow this style.
Style manuals followed in American formal writing and book publishing, such as the Chicago Manual of Style, AP Stylebook, APA Publication Manual, and MLA Handbook, all recommend using double quotes as quotation marks, with single quotes reserved for quotes within quotes. British style guides like the New Oxford Style Manual suggest the reverse: single quotes as primary quotation marks, with double quotes used only for quotes within quotes.
Commas and periods with quotation marks
In US style, periods and commas always go inside quotation marks. In UK style, a period (also called a full stop) or a comma precedes a closing quotation mark only if it is meant to punctuate the text within quotes. If it punctuates the surrounding sentence, the punctuation mark goes outside quotes.
- American: Farley said, “It’s all over.”
British: Farley said, ‘It’s all over.’The period ends the sentence inside quotes and therefore precedes the closing quotation mark in both American and British style. (Another period isn’t needed to end the larger sentence.)
- American: “All hope is lost,” said Farley.
British: ‘All hope is lost,” said Farley.The comma indicates the end of a quote in both American and British style.
- American: They claim the program is “intelligent.”
A period always goes inside quotes in US style.British: They claim the program is ‘intelligent’.Since the period is meant to end the surrounding sentence, it appears after the closing quotation mark in British style.
- American: “I’m afraid,” said Farley, “it’s over.”
Commas always go inside quotes in US style.British: ‘I’m afraid’, said Farley, ‘it’s over.’The comma interrupts the quote and belongs to the overall sentence. It therefore appears after the closing quotation mark in British style.
- American: They offered her “compensation,” which she refused.
British: They offered her ‘compensation’, which she refused.
Other punctuation with quotation marks
In both American and British style, question marks and exclamation points may appear before or after a closing quotation mark depending on whether they are meant to punctuate the quoted text or the larger sentence.
- American: “Who told you?”
British: ‘Who told you?’
- American: Did they again offer “compensation”?
British: Did they again offer ‘compensation’?
- American: “I’m free!”
British: ‘I’m free!’
- American: What an “apology”!
British: What an ‘apology’!
Punctuate carefully when you have a quote within a quote.
- American: She asked, “Did they offer ‘compensation’?”
British: She asked, ‘Did they offer “compensation”?’
American: “That’s no ‘spider’!” she cried.
British: ‘That’s no “spider”!’ she cried.
Other punctuation marks, such as colons, semicolons, and dashes, almost always belong to the surrounding sentence and go outside quotation marks in both American and British style.
- American: “I don’t know”—that’s all she wrote.
British: ‘I don’t know’ – that’s all she wrote.
- American: “It’s not intelligent”: that’s the consensus.
British: ‘It’s not intelligent’: that’s the consensus.
- American: The dialogue was so banal it ruined the movie: “Oh, I don’t know”; “That’s true”; “Let’s not fight”; “Such is life.”
British: The dialogue was so banal it ruined the movie: ‘Oh, I don’t know’; ‘That’s true’; ‘Let’s not fight’; ‘Such is life’.