Today's topic is one I was asked about in my conference workshop last weekend:
How do you use single quotation marks?
This is gonna be fun, because I just might get a little wonky and out of control with it . . .
Note: We're talking U.S. punctuation rules here, not UK rules.
Here's the good part of using single quotation marks: you almost never need them.
Don't use them when you're describing a sarcastic line and using air quotes.
Don't use them for thoughts.
Don't use them to set apart regular dialogue.
In all of those cases, you want double quotation marks like this:
"When in doubt, use double quotation marks," Wanda said. "First off, they're correct. But they're also cute."
Single quotation marks are used when you're quoting something but you're already in the middle of double quotes.
I can think of two situations where this fits:
- A quote within a quote (when your character is speaking and quotes someone else).
- A reference in a quote (your character is speaking and referring to a work that needs quote marks).
"Mrs. Lambert is so strict," Tony said. "Today in class, she said, 'Turn in your homework on time or you'll be docked points.' I'm so sure."
(Can you tell I have a teenager?)
Did you see how the quote marks worked? Tony gets double quotation marks around his words.
When he quotes Mrs. Lambert, we can't use double quotes again, because that would be confusing. (Sort of, "Wait. We're already in a quote. Are we ending it? Starting a new one? What?")
You can't stack up sets of double quotes and have it make any sense.
To differentiate between what Tony says and what he's quoting Mrs. Lambert as saying, set apart her words with single quote marks:
"TONY'S WORDS GO HERE, 'THEN MRS. LAMBERT'S WORDS GO HERE,' AND THEN TONY'S DIALOGUE CONTINUES."
A Reference in a Quote
Let's say that Mrs. Lambert mentioned a short story that was part of the homework. Short story titles need quotation marks.
Because you alternate between double and single quotes, a title inside a quote would normally get single quote marks:
"Mrs. Lambert assigned a worksheet on 'A Rose for Emily,' which I still need to read," Tony said.
Let's use the original sentence. We used double quotes for Tony's words.
Then we added single quotes for Mrs. Lambert's words.
What do we do to the title of the story (which is inside her quote)?
(Here comes the part where I'm going out of control . . . so fun!)
If we're quoting Tony, who is quoting Mrs. Lambert, who is referring to the short story, we have to continue to alternate between double and single quotes.
Double for Tony, single for Mrs. Lambert, double for the title:
"Mrs. Lambert is so strict," Tony said. "Today in class, she said, 'Turn in your worksheet for "A Rose for Emily" on time, or you'll be docked points.' I'm so sure."
(Isn't that fun?)
Other Punctuation with Quote Marks
Commas and periods go inside quotation marks, even if you're using single quotes.
If we're closing with a single AND a double quote, we end up with a comma and then three marks dangling at the end:
"Turn in your worksheet on 'A Rose for Emily,'" Mrs. Lambert said.
That looks funky, but it's right.
Now let's get really confusing on you. Question marks and colons go outside the quote marks.
So if the dialogue we're using has a question inside and the title is at the end of that, you can't put the question mark inside the quote marks. That would make the title a question. (Which can happen, like Who Framed Roger Rabbit? as a full title, although it's a movie, so it's italicized and doesn't get quote marks, but that's another post.)
In this case, squeeze the quotation mark between the single quote mark and the double quotes, like so:
"Did you turn in your worksheet on 'A Rose for Emily'?" Mrs. Lambert asked.
Let's go crazy and make that a quote from Tony quoting Mrs. Lambert!
At the end of the sentence, we'd have to:
- close the quotes on the short story title
- add the question mark to punctuate Mrs. Lambert's question
- close her quote
- and finally close Tony's quote
It looks like this:
"Mrs. Lambert said, 'Did you turn in your worksheet on "A Rose for Emily"?'" Tony said.
I'm giggling with glee over here. I love this stuff.