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I'm quite unsure regarding the usage of single quotation marks (') and double quotation marks (") in English.

I had thought that double quotation marks were usually used to quote sentences from passages/given sources, nouns/things ("Westminster Bridge", "alliteration", or "voice" regarding its usage in poetry), as well as some less common/important uses including being snarky and using them to indicate a sarcastic remark.

Someone had told me today that you were supposed to refer to things with two inverted commas (") instead of one.

Which one is correct? Could someone explain the usages between the two different types of quotation marks?

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This question has an open bounty worth +50 reputation from sumelic ending in 6 days.

Looking for an answer drawing from credible and/or official sources.

I'd like to see an answer that cites more authoritative sources, such as style guides or typography manuals that are used for professionally published material.

This is simply a question of style. Wikipedia has a huge article on the subject. The three passages most relevant to your question are:

Quotations and speech
Single or double quotation marks denote either speech or a quotation. Neither style—single or double—is an absolute rule, though double quotation marks are preferred in the United States, and both single and double quotation marks are used in the United Kingdom. A publisher’s or author’s style may take precedence over national general preferences. The important rule is that the style of opening and closing quotation marks must be matched[.]


To avoid the potential for confusion between ironic quotes and direct quotations, some style guides specify single quotation marks for [irony], and double quotation marks for verbatim speech.


Use–mention distinction
Either quotation marks or italic type can emphasize that an instance of a word refers to the word itself rather than its associated concept. [...] A three-way distinction is occasionally made between normal use of a word (no quotation marks), referring to the concept behind the word (single quotation marks), and the word itself (double quotation marks). [...] In common usage, there may be a distinction between the single and double quotation marks in this context; often, single quotation marks are used to embrace single characters, while double quotation marks enclose whole words or phrases[.]

Emphasis mine. Read the entire article for further insight.

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Also, in quotations, alternating marks indicate nesting. – Dennis Williamson Sep 27 '10 at 16:47
The "Irony" section in your answer below seems to have been edited in Wikipedia to remove the use of single quotation marks to indicate irony. Certainly I use double quotes for speech and single quotes to indicate irony. – Nick Pierpoint Oct 3 '12 at 14:44
This passage would be more convincing if Wikipedia had listed specific style guides that recommend differentiated between quoted speech and "ironic" quotes. While I've seen people make this distinction in informal writing, I've never encountered a style guide that recommended this. – sumelic 15 hours ago
I'm downvoting because this seems to be a case of "citogenesis" rather than an actual accepted practice recommended by style guides. The quoted material has been removed from the Wikipedia article. See this article: Single Quotes or Double Quotes? It’s Really Quite Simple. – sumelic 15 hours ago

According to the The Oxford Guide to Style British usage of single vs double inverted commas differs from the US one:

Quotation marks, also called 'inverted commas', are of two types: single and double. British practice is normally to enclose quoted matter between single quotation marks, and to use double quotation marks for a quotation within a quotation:

  • 'Have you any idea', he said, 'what "dillygrout" is?'

This is the preferred OUP practice for academic books. The order is often reversed in newspapers, and uniformly in US practice:

  • "Have you any idea," he said, "what 'dillygrout' is?"

If another quotation is nested within the second quotation, revert to the original mark, either single-double-single or double-single-double. When reproducing matter that has been previously set using forms of punctuation differing from house style, editors may in normal writing silently impose changes drawn from a small class of typographical conventions, such as replacing double quotation marks with single ones, standardizing foreign or antiquated constructions, and adjusting final punctuation order.

Do not, however, standardize spelling or other forms of punctuation, nor impose any silent changes in scholarly works concerned with recreating text precisely, such as facsimiles, bibliographic studies, or edited collections of writing or correspondence.

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Adding to the insight given by RedDwight, I found that in practice single marks are commonly used for single words or short sentences while double marks are used to denote longer passages of text. This may have become naturalized to some (me), but I don't know of any consensus on this.

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Interesting. I tend to do that as well (unless correcting, as I've done on this site, for what I think is consistency). It's also one key-press cheaper for me to type a single as opposed to double-quotes (shift + quote key). I can also amortize the cost of the two key-presses out over longer phrases, which seems to justify the effort. – jbelacqua Mar 20 '11 at 21:20

One use of single and double quotation marks not mentioned in any of the other answers is when quotation marks need to be nested, as in the case where a quotation itself includes a quotation. For example,

John stated, "I was walking down the sidewalk, when I heard a woman cry, 'Get out of here!'. I couldn't tell who she was talking to."

In this case, using double quotes both for John's statement, and for the exclamation of the woman would be confusing.

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I have been using double marks when writing and have never used single marks. Those kinds of preferences are in the eye of the beholder. However, others might argue that this is a difference between British English and American English.

EDIT (23/9/14): For example, while U.S. English spells defence 'defense', British English spells it 'defence'.

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Wrong - the English spell 'defence' 'defence', and interestingly, the Americans, 'defense'. – JFW Jul 21 '11 at 5:17
Oh, thats where I got wrong. Thanks for correcting me. – Phonics The Hedgehog Jul 21 '11 at 21:14

protected by tchrist Jul 1 '14 at 0:54

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