I’ve been under the impression that you use single quotation marks for single characters or numerals.

Usage: ‘1’ or ‘a’ and not “1” or “a”.

(You would double quotation marks for anything longer than one character.)

Is this a correct assumption?

Note: I’m aware that there are topics that discuss the usage of both single and double quotation marks, but my question is intended to be a specific as possible as it may benefit others here.

  • 6
    I've certainly never heard of that convention.
    – Urbycoz
    Aug 2 '12 at 13:23
  • 1
    I've heard that it varies by region and personal preference. Double quotes are more common in then US and single quotes are more common in the UK. Aug 2 '12 at 13:25
  • I also think it's changed over time. I have an old copy of Lord of the Rings, and it has double quotes. But seeing the new editions on Amazon, they've been changed to single quotes. American books always seems to have double. Also, if I remember, Mary Pollock's books had double quotes. Aug 2 '12 at 13:53
  • @asymptotically You are mistaken. The unauthorized — and illegal — 1965 Ace paperback of The Lord of the Rings erroneously converted Tolkien’s original single quotes into doubles, and committed many another grievous mangling as well. Both Tolkiens, père et fils, have always been 100% consistent in their use of quotation marks: single on the outside, double when nested.
    – tchrist
    Aug 2 '12 at 14:32
  • 1
    @tchrist - You should probably have put weasel quotes around "illegal" there. At the time under US law, TLotR was in the Public Domain in the USA. That was back in the bucolic days when Congress actually allowed things to enter the Public Domain... Still, if he really has an Ace edition, he should hold onto it. I've seen them selling online for $150.
    – T.E.D.
    Aug 2 '12 at 14:53

No it is not.

I believe you probably got that impression, directly or indirectly, from the programming language C, which does in fact have that as a rule. However, human languages are not programming languages. We don't really have an overwhelming need as people to differentiate a single letter from a string that happens to have only a single character in it.

  • 2
    Indeed, for how many ‘characters’ are there in ‘ǖ’?
    – tchrist
    Aug 2 '12 at 14:28
  • 1
    lol... I suspect you're right, @T.E.D. This reminds me of the time when I started confusing basic English spellings after I took French lessons that lasted for 2 years. Thank you!
    – Ray
    Aug 2 '12 at 14:55
  • Lmao, you two. XD Mar 18 '16 at 21:15
  • You claimed otherwise. Your answer says, "the programming language C, which does in fact have that as a rule".
    – nnnnnn
    Mar 25 '21 at 6:33
  • @nnnnnn - "that" is a purposely fuzzy word, to avoid a lot of pointless exposition about the nitty details of a programming language. There are of course many ways to interpret what "that" means. One, if you know the rules, would be to interpret it to mean the C char/string literal rule as it actually stands. One would be to follow the hyperlink I helpfully provided. And then I suppose one would be to invent an incorrect strawman, and then beat it up in the comments. But if you do the latter, that's your choice, and I would suggest you can easily solve the problem by choosing otherwise.
    – T.E.D.
    Mar 25 '21 at 13:12

In the U.S. (at least according to the Chicago Manual of Style), the only thing you're supposed to use single quotes for is quotations within quotations. This strikes me as a grievous underuse of a potentially useful punctuation mark. I would be interested in knowing what the British system is.

Grammar Girl has a nice article on this question.

  • 2
    If not fully utlizing every character on the keyboard bothers you, you'd make a great Perl programmer. :-)
    – T.E.D.
    Aug 2 '12 at 14:48
  • @T.E.D.: I have programmed in Perl, but I'm not particularly fond of it. :-) Aug 2 '12 at 14:51

The answer is the reverse of that mentioned of the "Chicago Manual of Style". Double quotes are to be used for using text from a document or exactly what was said. In both cases the text is drawn from a secondary source, which is always to be cited. Also double quotes are to be used for the formal title of a work or document. A title of a work or document can also be expressed by underlining, italicizing or bolding of the text. The last 3 are per the capabilities of a given word processor. The double quote form is universal. [see MLA Style Guide] Single quotes are then the default for all other purposes. i.e. what could/should/might have been said, labels and terms, which then would address the original question of single letters or digits.

  • "The double quote form is universal." - So everybody in every country uses it? (Or every English-speaking country.) I think you're mistaken about that. If you're going to mention just one style guide then MLA Style is an odd choice given it is intended for scholarly works and not all English writing.
    – nnnnnn
    Mar 24 '21 at 6:01

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