Lately I have been seeing single quotation marks on certain words and phrases in the headlines that float across the bottom of the TV screen. These phrases have nothing to do with the story being reported on. I am referring mostly to CNN. I started noticing these rolling sentences shortly after the 9-11 attacks on the World Trade Center. I am not sure what annoys me more—the fact that they are using single quotation marks in place of double quotation marks or the constant bombardment of information on the screen.
I have also noticed that approximately 20% of the writing I get from my clients employs single quotation marks to designate important concepts or key phrases. This clearly violates the U.S.-American convention. So I am writing this article to clarify the use of single vs. double quotation marks for academic writing.
When to use single quotation marks:
It is always appropriate to use single marks when you have a quote within a quote.
Ex., Mary said, “I don’t care that John said, ‘I won’t eat that old pasta.’ I am going to eat it anyway.”
So the enclosed quotation (what John says) gets the single quotation marks. British usage sometimes does the reverse, and this may be where the trouble lies. They put the single quotation marks on the first speaker’s words and double quotation marks on the second’s speaker’s words (the quote within the quote).
Another use of single quotation marks:
People in certain academic disciplines are accustomed to using single quotation marks on particular terms and phrases, which is contrary to what the vast majority of writers do in the United States. These fields are linguistics, philosophy, and theology. Tina Blue, an online writer, points out the following example:
Ex., There is an essential difference between ‘being’ and ‘becoming’.
Note that in this case the closing single quotation mark goes before the period, which is also contrary to common U.S. usage.
Aside from papers in linguistics, philosophy, and theology, there is no justification for the use of single quotation marks (except for a quote within a quote). When you want to draw attention to key words or phrases, use double quotation marks. What follows is an exhaustive list of the various occasions when double quotation marks are called for.