Single vs Double Quotation Marks and When to Use Them in Academic Writing

What’s Up with Those Single Quotation Marks?

Lately I have been seeing single quotation marks on certain words and phrases in the headlines that float across the bottom of the TV screen. These phrases have nothing to do with the story being reported on. I am referring mostly to CNN. I started noticing these rolling sentences shortly after the 9-11 attacks on the World Trade Center. I am not sure what annoys me more-the fact that they are using single quotation marks in place of double quotation marks or the constant bombardment of information on the screen.

I have also noticed that approximately 20% of the writing I get from my clients employs single quotation marks to designate important concepts or key phrases. This clearly violates the U.S.-American convention.

When to use single quotation marks:

It is always appropriate to use single marks when you have a quote within a quote.

Ex., Mary said, “I don’t care that John said, ‘I won’t eat that old pasta.’ I am going to eat it anyway.”

So the enclosed quotation (what John says) gets the single quotation marks. British usage sometimes does the reverse, and this may be where the trouble lies. They put the single marks on the first speaker’s words and double marks on the second’s speaker’s words (the quote within the quote).

Another use of single quotation marks:

People in certain academic disciplines are accustomed to using single quotation marks on particular terms and phrases, which is contrary to what the vast majority of writers do in the United States. These fields are linguistics, philosophy, and theology. Tina Blue, an online writer, points out the following example:

Ex., There is an essential difference between ‘being’ and ‘becoming’.

Note that in this case the closing single quotation mark goes before the period, which is also contrary to common U.S. usage.

Aside from papers in linguistics, philosophy, and theology, there is no justification for the use of single quotation marks (except for a quote within a quote). When you want to draw attention to key words or phrases, use double quotation marks. What follows is an exhaustive list of the various occasions when double marks are called for.

When to use double quotation marks:

1. The first use is, of course, to designate words in a quote.

Ex., The doctor said, “You really should cut down on your smoking.”

Ex., Then I said, “I can’t do that without going to a smoking cessation program.”

Note that in U.S.-American English, commas and periods go before the closing quotation marks.

2. The Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (APA, 2010) lists another occasion when double marks are called for: “to introduce a word or phrase used as an ironic comment, as slang, or as an invented or coined expression” (p. 91).

Ex., This is considered “normal” behavior.

In the previous example, the writer is calling into question the whole concept of normality, which can at times be quite subjective.

Bell (2008) explains that when you use double marks, you will render the sentence sarcastic, as in her following example:

Ex., People in many countries enjoy the “liberty” of voting for the only candidate on the ballot (p. 128).

She warns, however, not to use quotation marks with idiomatic expressions. “Quotes are not for showing your discomfort with a colloquial expression. Either make your peace with the idiom and use it without quotes, or choose another way to say what you mean” (p. 129).

Ex., That test was a piece of cake.

There is no need to put “piece of cake” in quotes.

3. APA (2010, p. 91) recommends using double quotation marks “to set off the title of an article or chapter in a periodical,” as in the next example.

Ex., Riger’s (1992) article, “Epistemological Debates, Feminist Voices: Science, Social Values, and the Study of Women”…

4. APA (2010, p. 92) says to use double quotes to indicate a quote within a block quotation, as in the example that follows:

Ex., Miele (1993) found the following:

The “placebo effect,” which had been verified in previous studies, disappeared when [only the first group’s] behaviors were studied in this manner. (p. 276)

In the previous example, the writer wishes to call attention to the phrase “placebo effect.” Since this quote has more than 40 words (I didn’t put the whole quote, for the sake of brevity), the writer has blocked the quote; this means that every line of the quote is indented. Therefore, no quotation marks are needed around a block quote, as the indenting signals a quote. So if quotation marks are needed to call attention to a phrase, then we start with double quotation marks. That is why “placebo effect” is in double marks rather than single marks. Some people may get confused and think that this phrase should be in single marks, as it is a quote within Miele’s quote. We don’t put single marks because we already know it’s a quote due to the blocking; therefore, we start with the double marks.

5. Another use of double quotation marks is when you wish to give the translation of a foreign word. You can put the translation in double marks or in parentheses. The Chicago Manual of Style (CMS, 2003, p. 291) offers the following example:

The Prakit word majjao, “the tomcat,” may be a dialect version of either of two Sanskrit words: madjaro, “my lover,” or marjaro, “the cat.”

6. Use double quotes for a word used as a term.

Ex., What do you suppose “liberty” meant to Mr. Henry? (Bell, 2008, p. 128).

In the previous example, we are asking about what the term “liberty” meant to someone. So quotation marks draw attention to the term.

7. Merriam-Webster’s Guide to Punctuation and Style (1995, p. 51) says to use quotes when you wish to highlight the words themselves.

Ex., He went through the manuscript and changed every “he” to “she.”

When not to use double quotation marks:

Do not use double quotation marks when trying to hedge (APA, 2010, p. 92), as in the next example.

Ex., The teacher rewarded the class with tokens.

In the previous example, it is not necessary to put “rewarded” in quotation marks.

The APA manual also advises not using quotation marks to introduce a key phrase or a technical phrase. It recommends the use of italics instead.

Ex., She compared it with meta-analysis, which is described in the next section (p. 91).

Disciplines may vary with regard to this last point, so always check with your department or professor to see whether your school uses quotation marks or italics. Remember, if you do decide to use quotes to signal key concepts, make sure they are double.


American English practice differs from that of British English. If you live in the United States and are seeking to publish in U.S. journals, it is advisable to use our system. Though nowadays there is a trend toward using single quotation marks instead of double marks, I recommend that you not jump on the bandwagon (even if CNN is doing it). The rule is simple: Use single marks only to indicate a quote within a quote. Unless you are writing a paper in linguistics, philosophy, or theology, you should be using double marks for all of the cases discussed in this article. Tina Blue sums it up nicely at the end of her article: “We should just stick with the conventions that are already familiar to us, so we don’t commit the crime of stylistic inconsistency, which is always a danger when you try to adopt someone else’s way of doing things.”


American Psychological Association (APA). 2010. Publication manual of the American Psychological Association(6th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.

Bell, J. (2008). Clean, well-lighted sentences: A guide to avoiding the most common errors in grammar and punctuation. New York, NY: W. W. Norton.

Blue, T. (2001, January). Single vs. double quotation marks: Once again British and American usage differ.

Merriam-Webster. (1995). Merriam-Webster’s guide to punctuation and style. Springfield, MA: Author.

University of Chicago Press. (2003). The Chicago manual of style (15th ed.). Chicago, IL: Author.

Single vs Double Quotation Marks and When to Use Them in Academic Writing by Vitalee Giammalvo

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