Quotation marks: single or double?

27 September 2019

When do you use double quotation marks and when do you use single? Is it correct to use quotation marks to emphasise a word? Do you need to italicise quoted material? Navigating quotation marks may at times feel like trying to climb out of a black hole, but once you know the rules, quotation marks are actually quite straightforward.

Unfortunately, misuse of quotation marks is common and contributes to further misuse, adding to the general confusion. Although they may seem like insignificant marks on the page, quotation marks (also known as inverted commas) are designed to add clarity to the meaning of your communication, so it's worth learning how to get them right.

Step 1. Decide whether you need quotation marks 

Scenario

Example

To indicate the exact words someone has spoken or written

Professors Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw have recently written a book that explores the ‘most extraordinary and mysterious phenomenon’ of black holes.

‘Black holes are not only the most exotic objects in the universe, understanding them offers us a unique window into some very profound physics,’ say the authors.

To indicate a word used in a special way 

The largest black holes are known as ‘supermassive’ black holes.

To identify a questionable concept

The company did not complete the ‘maintenance plan’ as promised (i.e. the maintenance plan was sub-standard).

The title of an article or an essay in a periodical, or an unpublished paper

‘Everything you need to know about the first black hole image’ by Leah Crane, New Scientist, 10 April 2019.

You do not need to use quotation marks:
  • for indirect speech (reporting in your own words what someone else has said or written)
  • to emphasise a word
  • to indicate an acronym 
  • for familiar expressions (e.g. the proof is in the pudding)
  • following the expression so called.

Compare these examples:

Incorrect: Black holes are 'extremely' interesting.
Correct:    Black holes are extremely interesting.
Incorrect: generic object of dark energy ('GODE')
Correct:    generic object of dark energy (GODE) 

 

Step 2. Determine what style of quotation mark to use

Quotation marks can be single or double. Whether you use single or double quotation marks is a style preference. It’s a bit like preferring a sedan to a hatch of the same make and model car.

Check your organisation’s writing style guide (if it has one) and always follow their style preference. Single quotation marks is a common choice in Australia, whereas double quotation marks is more common in the United States. My preference for business writing is for single quotation marks as this style reduces the number of black marks on the page and makes the text and layout less cluttered.

However, there are times when you may need to insert a quote within a quote. In this case, use the opposite style for the internal quote. For example:

'Star clusters—groups of stars that are bound together by gravity—might act like black-hole "nurseries", providing an ideal environment to grow generations of black holes,' explains Dr Davide Gerosa, lead author of the paper 'Where in the universe can you find a black hole nursery?'

Some writing style guides require that you differentiate between quoted direct speech and other uses of quotation marks. It is only necessary to make this differentiation if your organisation’s style guide requires it. This differentiation is not common and, to my mind, adds an unnecessary complication.

Step 3. Check for consistency

When drafting a report or other communication, it’s easy to lose track of the quotation marks. The longer the communication, or the more people who have contributed to the same communication, the more likely there will be inconsistencies. Rather than getting caught up on whether you are using quotation marks correctly and consistently while writing your first draft, do a global check when you have finished revising the final draft. 

Don’t put quoted text in italics – this is overkill and an incorrect use of quotation marks. The exception to this could be italicising a pull-quote (one or two lines of text taken out of a report and reproduced in larger type to draw attention). You may also use italics to emphasise a word or words within the quoted material. 

Quotation marks are designed to add clarity to your writing, not create a distraction. Be careful not to throw quotation marks around with abandon as overuse of quotation marks can be just as irritating to your reader as misuse or inconsistent use.

Do you frequently run out of time to check the detail? Our professional editors and proofreaders will ensure your communications are polished and correct. Contact Concise Writing Consultancy today on 02 9238 6638

Black hole quote sources:

https://www.thebookseller.com/news/cox-explores-black-holes-phenomenon-william-collins-991176

https://phys.org/news/2019-08-universe-black-hole-nursery.html

 

 

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