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Monday, March 29, 2021

When to Use Single Quotation Marks in Fiction

Like the semicolon, there are a lot of misconceptions about when to use single quotation marks, and also like the semicolon, the rules are actually very simple. Mainly because there is only one.

Nonetheless, I see this punctuation mark misused all the time. 

But before I get too far into this, it's important to note that I'm specifically talking about American English. British English reverses the use of double and single quotation marks--meaning British English uses single where American English uses double. Other than that, my understanding is, they are pretty similar (feel free to comment if you have more, relevant insight into British English). 

In American English, the only time you use single quotation marks is when quoting something within a quote. For fiction, this usually means within dialogue, when a character is quoting something or someone else.

For example:

"I was talking to Alfred yesterday, and he said, 'I've always been allergic to cats,'" Jen explained. 

Jen is directly quoting Alfred. This means Alfred's exact words will be set off in single quotation marks. 

Here is another example:

"When I got to the door, the sign stated, 'Closed until further notice,' and I wasn't sure what to do next," Mark said.

That's it. It's that easy. 

And you handle any surrounding punctuation the same way you do with double quotations. Notice how the comma goes inside the single end quote in the above example. Here is another.

"I was talking to Michael yesterday, and he told me, 'Addy is furious with Violet.' So I said, 'I'm sorry to hear that.'"

(If you need more help on how to punctuate around quotation marks, check out "How to Punctuate Dialogue.")

Still, people are frequently confused about single quotation marks. Let's cover some common mistakes. 

The most common mistake I see, is when a writer uses single quotes as a sort of alternative to double quotes, outside of dialogue. For example, they might write:

The sign read, 'Exit.' [wrong]

The sign is never read aloud, so the writer reasons that single quotes make sense because they are sort of an "in-between" form of punctuation.

Even with that reasoning, it's still wrong (sorry). You are supposed to use double quotes, though sometimes italics is accepted as well.

I also often see this mistake come up with characters' direct thoughts: 

'I'm so inexperienced,' Bruce thought. [wrong]

But direct thoughts are supposed to be in italics, or, in some formats, underlined. So, this is wrong as well. It should be:

I'm so inexperienced, Bruce thought.

Some writers use single quotation marks to bring emphasis to a word, but, well, that's also wrong. Use italics or double quotes for emphasis. Worth mentioning is that setting a word aside in double quotes often implies there is something "off" or strange about the word. So unless that's what you want to do, it's usually better to use italics--but some of it comes down to good judgment. 

So, the only time you use single quotes in fiction, is when you need to quote inside of double quotes.

This is true according to pretty much every style guide: Chicago, APA, MLA . . . (In fact, I found this post from someone who went searching through 38 style guides on the topic.) The only place you might see single quotes used differently is in journalism; when space is limited, single quotation marks may be used instead. 

Now, this isn't the sort of thing that's going to ruin a story, of course. When I was a teenage writer, I misused single quotation marks all the time. I don't remember ever getting called out on it. But, they are misused a lot, so I thought I'd stray from my usual storytelling craft posts to explain them.


  1. Hi there, love your articles. And for this one I have a question. I'm Australian and we're opposite; we use the single quotation for dialogue. Here's a snippet of inside the MC's thought; he's recalling this. Which is one is correct?

    When she started feeling off, she’d thought it was a bug of some sort. ‘I’ve always been irregular,' she’d told him.

    When she started feeling off, she'd thought it was a bug of some said, "I've always been irregular".

    1. Hi Charlotte,

      Thanks! Since Australian English is opposite of American English, it should be single quotes.

      When she started feeling off, she’d thought it was a bug of some sort. ‘I’ve always been irregular,' she’d told him.

      At least that's my understanding--unless there are more Australian punctuation rules than I am familiar with. If it is simply opposite, it would be single. :)

  2. I can pick up two books and each may use the 'speech quotes' differently. Growing up in England I was taught what you term 'the American-English way' as correct and still use double quotes for speech. I don't regard either use of the speech quote as a mistake, rather a personal choice.

    1. Hey John,

      Thanks for sharing your England experience with us. :) I didn't know that double quotes were ever taught as "correct" there. Here in the U.S., we are supposed to use double quotes--I only see them swapped if I'm reading a book from another country.


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