American English uses double-quotes, while British English uses single-quotes:

"This is a quote."

'This is a quote.'

Why do we use different quotation marks? When did this difference originate? Were quotation marks not standardized until relatively recently?

  • 1
    The only why question which I want to know is why people keep asking why American English and British English does this or that thing differently. It is not like you can get an answer to almost any of these, just non-constructive muddles and meanders.
    – tchrist
    Commented Jan 7, 2013 at 3:16
  • I'm sure Webster had something to do with this.
    – user10893
    Commented Jan 7, 2013 at 3:19
  • 8
    Looking at an 1813 copy of Pride and Prejudice, printed in London, you find double quotation marks. So clearly, the Americans stuck with tradition while the British decided to change things. A book from 1766 does without any kind of quotation marks, so quotation marks may not even have been introduced until relatively recently. Commented Jan 7, 2013 at 3:26
  • 7
    @tchrist: No muddle. To corroborate Peter's example, the demarcation point was the War of 1812. The embargo of American ports, among other hardships, resulted in a scaling back of the lead trade to the former colonies, which in turn encouraged the practice of shaving off the extra quote marks in printers cases. The end of the war was settled by the Treaty of Ghent: no reparations were levied on either side, the practice of single quotes remained, and the British have forgotten the altercation entirely.
    – Mitch
    Commented Jan 7, 2013 at 4:29
  • @tchrist At the least you could seek an explanation in terms of when it originated.
    – user84614
    Commented Mar 29 at 5:07

3 Answers 3


Posted by one Dave Richards on Grammar Girl

It is a fallacy to claim that standard British English uses single quotation marks first and doubles only for quotes embedded in quotes. This is indeed the case with novels, but all other publications use double quotation marks first and singles for nested quotations.

As a Brit, I agree. I don't see a lot of single quote marks in print. But I don't read many novels.

The British preference for single quote marks in novels is simply because novels often have a lot of reported speech. Why clutter the page up with twice as many of the ubiquitous little ticks?

We use single quotes just the same as Americans when it means 'so-called', for example. We just listened to Henry Fowler's sensible suggestion (in 1908) that we should reverse the then-dominant "single quotes within double quotes" convention for nested contexts. But only for things that are likely to need it (basically, novels).

EDIT: Comparing British and American instances of what they call a in Google Books (where it's often followed by a "quotated" term), I don't see any clear-cut tendency for either corpus to favour single or double quotes, so I'm not particularly defending that point. It seems to be a 'personal' rather than 'national' stylistic choice (but I admit mixing the two as here doesn't look good! :)

  • 3
    That Grammar Girl column may also answer the question: it says that in 1908, Fowler recommended a change to single quotation marks in his The King's English. Commented Jan 7, 2013 at 3:44
  • @Peter: I was checking it out and adding it while you were commenting! Commented Jan 7, 2013 at 3:55
  • 3
    Actually, this American always uses double quotation marks for "scare quotes", and I don't think I've ever seen anyone else do it differently.
    – Marthaª
    Commented Jan 7, 2013 at 4:11
  • 2
    We even do "air-quotes" with two fingers on each hand.
    – Jim
    Commented Jan 7, 2013 at 4:13
  • @Martha: Well, Time Magazine is a typical US publication, and they use single quotes for TIME’s No. 1 Song of 2012: No, It’s Not ‘Gangnam Style’ Commented Jan 7, 2013 at 4:24

Disclaimer: I could be wrong.

I had always believed that double quotes for quotation marks serves to disambiguate the apostrophe.

"What's the difference between using single and double quotation marks/inverted commas?"
'What's the difference between using single and double quotation marks/inverted commas?'

In other words, I do not think it's necessarily another Americanism/BrE issue.

(Amazing revelations from @Mitch and @PeterShor in the comments at OP acknowledged.)


All of the above are both correct and incorrect. As a Briton, I was taught that the correct usage is single marks ( ' and ') for quotations (hence the term quotation marks, and double (" and ", aka 66 and 99) for speech marks. When having to nest quotations one should alternate single with double ie 'quote "quoted in quote" rest of quote' etc. Interestingly, people seem to have forgotten about the difference in terms; one never seems to hear people mention speech marks, only quotation marks, but speech marks are very important when writing fiction.

  • How are construing all of the above to be plural not singular? Surely you meant "is".
    – tchrist
    Commented Aug 8, 2018 at 11:36
  • @tchrist – Do you mean ‘How are you construing …’? Also, Martin's answer is not grammatically incorrect. Because all is such an inherently ambiguous quantifier, it requires context to indicate the correct form of the subsequent verb. In this case, “the above” is similarly equivocal; it could take a singular verb as you suggested if it were followed by an uncountable noun like information, but here it seems to be referring to answers, hence the plural.
    – Kit
    Commented Oct 4, 2020 at 18:15
  • I heard the phrase '66 and 99s' today from a friend's mother. I take it this was the teaching method, at school, some time ago. Never heard of it before, Do you know when this was no longer in vogue?
    – user414952
    Commented Feb 26, 2021 at 22:05
  • This is in complete disagreement with the above which is that single is used for speech in novels and double for the rest.
    – user84614
    Commented Mar 29 at 5:13

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