Writer’s Corner: A Single or a Double?

Sadly not a post about whiskey. No rather, this is a post about quotation marks. When I was at school, I never even considered the idea of a single quotation mark. We were always taught to use double. Which is odd as it turns out, given the ‘rules’.

So, now that I am into that nitty-gritty stage of editing, I thought it was about time that I checked out this rule once and for all. First stop, the books on my desk. They go as follows:

Dead Until Dark by Charlaine Harris (US) – Uses single quotation marks for speech.

The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith (UK) – Uses single quotation marks for speech.

The Fault In Our Stars by John Green (US) – Uses double quotation marks for speech.

The Girl Who Saved The King Of Sweden by Jonas Jonasson (Swedish) – Uses single quotation marks for speech.

So it’s a mixed bag but lending towards single. Second stop, check out the grammar guides and the supposed ‘rules’. According to the Oxford Guide to Style:

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?”


And from Grammar and Style in British English:

Quotation marks (or inverted commas) may be used singly or doubly. Single marks are generally preferred in British English, while double marks are obligatory in American English.


These both mean that Harris is breaking convention for her form of English, unless of course, the book has been formatted two ways for the different audiences which – if you ask me – is probably one step too far. I am yet to meet a person who has said “loved the book. Pity about the use of single instead of double quotation marks though.” Which begs another question, does it matter all that much? Books are now global, so if we take the general rules above as true, you are going to be ‘wrong’ in the eyes of half your readership anyway. Plus we also have to look at publishing houses. They are often the ones that dictate style. So a British author with an American publishing house – whose rules do they play by? (As it happens, the version of Dead Until Dark I have was printed via an English publishing house so perhaps my answer to the previous question is the latter).

Frankly, I think the rule should just be consistency. At the end of the day, the difference between the two forms is purely aesthetical. They do not each have a different role or a slightly different nuance of use, they do the same job. I always saw it that double is for speech because that is the more ‘powerful’ and ‘dominant’ of the appearances and the single for quotes within speech as it is the ‘lighter’ punctuation. But my point is that I think, like most stylistic issues, the most important thing is to stay true to your own choice of style. Because you might hear someone say “Good book but I did notice that she couldn’t make her mind up on quotation marks”. If you use single for speech, use double for quotation and the inverse should also be true. It can get confusing if you use the same for both or worse, mix and match at random.

I have a style-guide that goes with each of my books – particularly important for me because I’m Indie Publishing so I am my own gatekeeper when it comes to these things – and on that I keep details like this. I decide on the rule, explore all of the variations and then apply it without exception. If you are traditionally published or going that route, the chances are the choice will be taken away from you. As I say, the publishing houses tend to get the last word.

Thus ends today’s lesson.