You’ve probably seen quotation marks all around you all the time—but maybe, when you sit down to write something, you’re not super confident about how exactly to use them correctly or which types go where. Between double quotation marks, single quotation marks, direct speech, nested speech, emphatic speech… it can start to feel a little overwhelming!

Not to worry. We’ll guide you through everything you need to know about how to use these quotation marks confidentially, consistently, and effectively in your writing.

What’s the difference between single quotes vs. double quotes?

Single quotes (‘’) are more commonly used in British punctuation, while double quotes (“ ”) are more commonly used in American punctuation. Both are used to offset direct speech, certain titles, or emphatic language from the rest of the text. American English also uses single quotation marks to offset nested dialogue, while British English uses double quotation marks for nested dialogue.

We’ll take a closer look at each of these uses below.

When should you use double quotation marks?

One important thing to remember is that quotation mark usage is different depending on if you’re writing in American English or European English. However, both use single and double quotation marks in different ways.

Here’s the most important usage of double quotation marks in writing: dialogue.

For direct dialogue (if you’re American)

The most common use of quotation marks is setting off direct speech. In America, they use a double quotation mark to indicate something spoken out loud. For example:

“Are you still coming by later?” She looked away, affecting disinterest.

The double quotation mark separates the direct speech from the rest of the text.

For nested dialogue (if you’re European)

A nested quotation refers to dialogue within dialogue. This is usually if the person speaking is quoting someone else. Europeans use double quotation marks to set off nested speech, like this:

‘So then he was like, “Uh, I’m busy…,” and I said, “Okay, what are you busy with?” And he didn’t even know!’

The primary use of double and single quote marks is to express a direct quotation.

Sometimes quotation marks are called “inverted commas” in British English.

When should you use single quotation marks?

Single quotation marks appear in both dialects, too, but in different ways.

For direct dialogue (if you’re European)

You may notice from the example above that the example of European English opens its dialogue with single quotation marks. This is a major punctuation difference between European and American English.

In Europe, the first dialogue example would look like this:

‘Are you still coming by later?’ She looked away, affecting disinterest.

For nested dialogue (if you’re American)

For nested dialogue, the same rule applies: the single and double quotes are reversed. Americans use single quotes for their nested dialogue, instead of double quotes. The above example would look like this:

“So then he was like, ‘Uh, I’m busy…,’ and I said, ‘Okay, what are you busy with?’ And he didn’t even know!”

The single quotes show the reader that there are two separate strains of dialogue happening within the same space.

You can learn more about properly punctuating your dialogue in our lesson here.

Quotation marks vs. italics in dialogue

Sometimes, though, you might see dialogue being written in italics without any quotation marks. What’s that all about?

Quotation marks—single or double, depending where on the map you are—is used to denote speech that’s happening out loud, in the present moment. This might be either a conversation, a lecture, or just talking to yourself out loud.

Italics are most commonly used for internal speech—that is, dialogue that’s happening in a character’s head. The reader sees a piece of dialogue written in italics and knows that it wasn’t spoken out loud; the character was just thinking it to themselves. Italics might also be used to communicate dialogue that is shared but not spoken, such as sign language or telepathy.

Sometimes, italics are used instead of quotation marks to express dialogue that isn’t spoken out lout.

Sometimes, dialogue that’s spoken out loud but is happening in a flashback or memory might be written in italics, too. That way, the reader knows that they’re moving away from the present moment into the mists of time gone by.

Occasionally, you might see all of the dialogue being written in italics instead of in quotation marks. This is more common in short stories than in longer works like novels. It gives the impression that the whole story is happening in a dream state, or is being revisited in retrospect as the character looks back on their memories. Most of the time, however, writers like to use quotation marks to set off their dialogue because it’s what most readers are familiar with.

Other uses of quotation marks

Here are a few more places you’ll see these punctuation marks in writing. All of these will use either the standard double quotation marks in America, or the single quotation mark in Europe.

For titles of short-form work

Many style guides put quotation marks around short-form artistic works that form part of a larger whole. Standalone work, however, is usually italicized.

Short-form work includes things like a single poem in a larger collection, a short story, a chapter of a novel, a song, or a TV episode. Then the name of the poetry collection, short story collection, novel, album, or TV series would be in italics.

For instance:

“Once More With Feeling” is my favorite episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Seamus Heaney’s poem “Digging” appears in his first collection, Death of a Naturalist, and deals with themes of heritage and personal identity.

This structure can vary a little bit from one publisher to another. For instance, the Chicago Manual of Style uses italics for long-form work, but the Associated Press Stylebook uses double quotation marks instead.

Specialized or emphatic terms

Sometimes, writers will use quotation marks around language that might be unfamiliar to some readers, or that they want to draw special attention to.

For example:

What’s the difference between “affect” and “effect”?

The colored threading at the top of some books is called a “headband.” Each grouping of sewn pages within the book is called a “signature.”

Something really important to note is that in American punctuation rules, the closing period or comma goes inside the double quotations—as seen above. Other punctuation, like question marks, exclamation points, and semicolons, go outside them.

In European English, periods and commas go outside the closing quotation marks if it’s not part of the original quoted text:

The colored threading at the top of some books is called a ‘headband’. Each grouping of sewn pages within the book is called a ‘signature’.

You can use double quotation marks or single quotation marks to highlight notable words or phrases in a sentence.

Sneer quotes

Sneer quotes, also called scare quotes or air quotes, are used to denote verbal irony. When something is in sneer quotes, you know that the speaker or writer is being sarcastic.

For example:

So then he told me that he was busy “working” at his “new job.”

Was he really working at his new job? No.

These are the kinds of quotes people sometimes make with their fingers when implying something isn’t credible (that’s why they’re sometimes called “air quotes.”) In European English, the same rule applies about using single quotes and putting closing punctuation outside the closing quotation marks.


Quotation marks are also used around nicknames when they appear in a full name, such as Stan “The Man” Lee, or Al “Scarface” Capone.

Quotation mark rules are easy with a little practice

While the usage of quote marks can feel overwhelming at first, it’s pretty simple when you get used to it. American punctuation almost never uses single quotes, except for nested dialogue—they use double quote marks for everything else. British English uses double quotation marks only in nested quotes.

Whether you’re using single or double quotes, you can use them to set off dialogue, highlight shorter creative works, or to draw attention to unusual, emphatic, or original words.