Why Use Single Inverted Commas?

If you’ve read any of my stories, you’ll notice I use inverted commas (‘’) for dialogue, instead of double quotations (‘‘’’). Now I realize that using single quotation marks for dialogue, instead of double, can distract some readers, but it’s an informed choice I made. And before deciding on a standard, I had to search for a reason to do it. I found myself asking a question that, well, no one could definitely answer.

So should you use double quotation marks instead of single when expressing dialogue? The answer is: if you want.

I know that answer sucks. But the reasoning is more technical than one might think. And, after everything, it only comes down to style and preference, and what your publisher demands. I am somewhat disheartened to say that after my research I haven’t found a for-sure answer that says one way is actually better than the other, but it did help me understand. All I can say is, if you’re writing for your own platform, it ultimately doesn’t matter which method you use, as long as it’s consistent. Other than that, just use whatever your publisher uses. I really want to emphasize that I’m only offering my personal thoughts regarding the subject, after having looked into the whole thing.

So, on to the reason why . . .

As you might know, my writing “bible” is Henry Watson Fowler’s A Dictionary of Modern English Usage. I luckily found my copy in a thrift store years ago and have used it ever since.

Fowler’s idea of English was ruled by logic. Generally, he would advise to write the logical thing as opposed to the commonly accepted thing. Needless to say it’s controversial. However, at the end of the day my writing comes down to what I want, and I want it to make sense and be clear. I agree with Fowler about most of what he says. Well, about the important stuff, anyway.

So when it comes to single inverted commas, I first saw them when I read George Orwell’s 1984. George Orwell is one of the best writers of his time, and my favourite writer. 1984 was published in Britain. Britain uses single inverted commas around dialogue. It didn’t distract me (I didn’t even notice there was a distinction until writing this) and I figured if it’s good enough for Orwell and Great Britain, then it’s sure as hell good enough for me.

But—I wanted to make sure. I consulted Fowler.

Fowler claims that while double quotation marks is the commonly used style, single quotations are more logical:

There are single and double quotation marks, and, apart from minor peculiarities, two ways of utilizing the variety. The prevailing one is to use double marks for most purposes, and single ones for quotations within quotations, as:—“Well, so he said to me ‘What do you mean by it?’ and I said ‘I didn’t mean anything’”. Some of those who follow this system also use the single marks for isolated words, short phrases, and anything that can hardly be called a formal quotation; this avoids giving much emphasis to such expressions, which is an advantage. The more logical method is that adopted, for instance, by the Oxford University Press, of reserving the double marks exclusively for quotations within quotations. Besides the loss of the useful degrees in emphasis (sure, however, to be inconsistently utilized), there is a certain lack of full-dress effect about important quotations when given this way; but that is probably a mere matter of habituation.

Granted, he doesn’t fully explain why this is, but mentions that the double quotation does give more emphasis to the statement they are wrapped around. In addition, he states that if you opt to use double quotations for quotations within quotations, it lacks the appearance of traditional correctness—albeit that having the appearance of correctness for the sake of it is not necessarily imperative.

So here’s what I think: I don’t want to over-emphasize simple dialogue. I don’t think direct dialogue needs to look dressed up. It’s just a piece of the story, like the narration, except it has to be indicated that the people are speaking the lines—hence the use of quotations. So I use single quotation marks for dialogue, which means I have to use double quotations for almost everything that is not dialogue. But more importantly, however, is that the use of double quotations when expressing important phrases or sarcasm gives it an appearance of heavier connotation. I do want to over-emphasize sarcasm or pulled phrases. For example, look what I write here:

She went to see her boyfriend.

Nothing too interesting about that. Now, let’s add single quotes:

She went to see her ‘boyfriend’.

It changes what we think of her boyfriend from being a simple boyfriend, to now presuming something is not quite as it seems, or that the term means something different to the one who said it. It appears sarcastic. Maybe she has only claimed he is her boyfriend, but he really isn’t.

So that’s all good. But now let’s use double quotes:

She went to see her “boyfriend”.

Now, just look at that last sentence for a moment. It has the same effect as the one before it, only now it almost smacks you in the face with the word boyfriend. You are absolutely sure that the writer is expressing sarcasm here, and that this word is important. I find that single quotes just don’t give that same effect. To me, when I see single quotes, it just feels like there’s no emphasis, no tone, no voice. Have you ever seen someone tell you something and then make that quote motion with their fingers? They don’t use one finger on each hand, they use two. That’s what I’m trying to describe. People recognize the heaviness double quotations put on sarcasm, or a pulled quote, so why don’t we use that same mentality in written text?

Laser-Dr-Evil
Perfect usage.

And so I use the single quotations for dialogue in my writing because I like it. It fits my voice. I would rather use simple single quotes for basic dialogue—the things that are standard—and then save the double quotations for sarcasm, important phrases, and pulled quotes, because I make sure that information is more interesting and more important in the story anyway, and so it should stand out more. If I use double quotations for all the normal dialogue, then I lose my power to make a heavier impact when it has to count. I want the reader to know there’s no question of my implications as the writer. Again, I believe most people instantly recognize double quotes as giving the word a heavier connotation in sarcasm, important phrases, or pulled quotes.

In the end, it’s just my preference. I may change my mind about this in the future, but right now I think single quotes for dialogue is simpler, looks cleaner, and gives me room to make greater emphasis on the words or phrases I actually do want to emphasize more. After all, it wasn’t until American English came along before there was this preference for the double quotations for dialogue. I’ve read many books by British authors who use single quotations for dialogue and it never bothered me or them. So sometimes I wonder, is this simply another case of Americans making up a new unnecessary standard to distinguish themselves from the British? A case of color versus colour? Shall we use the metric system instead of the imperial?

Well, I don’t know about all that. But what I do know is that if it’s merely a question of choosing one way over the other, as it seems to be, and I’m writing in a personal outlet, I’ll stick with what makes most sense to me and has worked best for me.

Having said all that, keep in mind that when you submit anything to a publisher, they ain’t gonna care what you want, they are gonna want what they want. So until the US/Canadian publication standards change (if they ever do), you’ll probably just have to suck it up and follow suit.

Ah, English.

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2 thoughts on “Why Use Single Inverted Commas?

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