Single vs. Double Quotation Marks

Single and double quotation marks both appear in pairs and work the same way: most often, they enclose a quotation or direct speech, but they can also indicate irony, set off the title of a work (like the name of a song or a poem), or show that a word is used as itself in a sentence.

Whether to use single or double quotes depends upon whether you follow US or UK style. Double quotes (“ ”) are used to enclose text in American (and often Canadian) style, with single quotes used around words in text already within quotes. In contrast, single quotes (‘ ’) are preferred in British (and often Australian) style, with double quotes reserved for quotes within quotes.

American vs. British

In US style, text is generally enclosed in double instead of single quotation marks.

  • Lulu said, “I can’t believe you did this.”
  • She said it was all “a scandalous lie.”
  • He has just published an “apology” on his blog.
  • They clearly enjoy playing “Tuesday’s Gone” to an audience.
  • She’s two now, and her new favorite word is “no.”

In British academic and formal writing and book publishing, single quotation marks are used instead.

  • She said, ‘I’m glad you wrote.’
  • Poco said it was all ‘a scandalous lie’.
  • He has issued an ‘apology’.
  • Perhaps the best apology poem is ‘This Is Just to Say’ by William Carlos Williams.
  • My new favorite phrase is ‘goblin mode’.

However, in British news copy, double quotes are used, as in US style. The BBC and Guardian, for example, follow this style, although they use single quotes in headlines, likely to save space.

  • “We don’t know exactly when their olfactory impairments started to decline.” But she is “confident” that long-term exposure to pollution was the cause, even at low levels.
    — “Is air pollution causing us to lose our sense of smell?” BBC Future (Feb. 21, 2023)

Quotes within quotes

In US style, use single quotes around words that appear in text already inside double quotes. Double quotes are the primary marks in American writing, with single quotes kept in reserve to be brought out only when you need a secondary pair of quotation marks.

  • Her latest article, “Why We Are All in ‘Goblin Mode,’” was just published this morning.
  • “Is that the image that won ‘Picture of the Year’?”
  • “When she says ‘soon,’ she means sometime this year.”
  • “I wish we had brought some ‘cookies,’ if you know what I mean.”

In British writing, this style is reversed: single quotation marks are the default, with double quotation marks used around a quote within text already in single quotes.

  • ‘Is that the image that won “Picture of the Year”?’
  • ‘When she says “soon”, she means sometime this year.’

In British news writing, double quotation marks are used instead, with single quotation marks used for quotes within quotes (which is the same as US style).

  • “A good example is ‘Can your child walk?’,” Sheldrick says. “What do you mean by ‘walk’?”
    — “What parents get wrong about childhood ‘milestones’,” BBC Family Tree (Jan. 10, 2023)

American style manuals such as the Chicago Manual of Style, AP Stylebook, APA Publication Manual, and MLA Handbook all recommend using single quotation marks only if needed to show quotes in text already enclosed in double quotes. The British New Oxford Style Manual, in contrast, recommends using double quotes only in text already within single quotes.

Punctuation around single and double quotes

In US style, commas and periods always go inside quotation marks, whether single or double. This rule stands for all quoted text, including quotes within quotes. Thus, if a phrase is enclosed in single quotes inside text in double quotes, the period goes inside the single and double quotes.

  • “She said she would call ‘soon.’”
  • “The phrase of the year is ‘goblin mode,’” she announced.
  • “I know this is supposed to be ‘cake,’ but it tastes like bread.”

Question marks and exclamation points go inside single or double quotation marks depending on the text they are meant to punctuate. They go outside if they belong to the surrounding sentence.

  • “She yelled, ‘Now!’”
  • “Did I just hear someone say ‘dragon’?”
  • “Did you ask her if she wants to join our little expedition?”
    “Yes. She simply asked, ‘When?’”
  • “Did you ask about our share?”
    “I did, and he said, ‘I have no idea what you are talking about’!”

In British style, a punctuation mark goes inside single or double quotes only if it is meant to punctuate the text enclosed in those quotes, but outside if it should be punctuating the surrounding sentence. This rule applies to all punctuation, including periods and commas.

  • ‘I think it’s all over’, she said.
  • ‘I think’, she said, ‘it’s all over.’
  • ‘The phrase of the year is “goblin mode”’, she announced.
  • ‘He said it’s “urgent”, which means it’s due next week.’
  • ‘Did I just hear someone say “dragon”?’
  • ‘She asked, “When?”’

Space between single and double quotes

When a single quote appears beside a double quote (either opening or closing), a space may be inserted between the two to improve readability. Doing this is optional: it can be useful in some fonts, less useful in others. If you do insert a space, make sure to use a non-breaking space to ensure that a quotation mark doesn’t get stranded at line break. In print publications, typesetters generally place a hair space (or thin space) between two adjacent quotation marks.

  • “It’s true,” she said. “I haven’t heard ‘Billie Jean.’ ”
  • “ ‘Cookies’ aren’t what they are selling,” he replied.

To insert a non-breaking space in Microsoft Word, press Ctrl + Shift + Space (on Windows) or Option + Space (on Mac OS). The HTML character code is  .

Quick Quiz

Which is correctly punctuated?
Choose from these answers
All done!
Which is preferred in US style?
Choose from these answers
All done!
Which is preferred in UK style?
Choose from these answers
All done!
Which is correctly punctuated?
Choose from these answers
All done!