How to use punctuation properly is probably one of the YAWNiest subjects around. If you’re a writer or a word nerd like me though, this may prove helpful as the single quotation mark is probably the most misused punctuation mark (next to the comma) there is. Since the UK and the US do things differently, I’ll explain both.
There are three very basic and distinct ways to use single quotation marks according to the Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS):
#1 – A Quote within a quote
A quote within a quote is called a nested quotation.
Anytime you are quoting someone who is quoting someone else is time to use single quotation marks. Here’s an example for American English:
“Let us explore the meaning of the quote ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,’” said the teacher.
See how we start the main quote? We always start with the double quotation marks that you are used to seeing. As the quoted text continues, you see the teacher in the quoted text is referencing another quote! This quote within the quote is where we will use our single quotation mark. So we all understand, the main quotation is contained within double quotation marks; the quote within a quote is contained within single quotation marks. How easy is that?
Now, just to throw a wrench into the works, British English is just the opposite. Single quotation marks engulf the main quote, and double quotations contain the quote within a quote. It’s just the opposite! Single quotation marks have the same placement rules as your regular ole double quotation marks.
#2 – A title within a title or headline
What??? So, think about what you’ve just learned about quotes within a quote. This is basically the same pretext. A title within a title is most common when creating citations for academic or research text. You can see in the example below, the yellow high-lighted area is the main title of the citation. The words in purple are the title to a book which is included in the overall title of this paper.
It is also feasable to see them in a title or headline, of say, a newspaper article or a blog post but using italics is much more common for this purpose.
Judith Lewis, “ ‘Maternal Mortality in the British Aristocracy, 1558–1959,” Journal of British Studies 37, no. 1 (1998): 28–29.
#3 – Naming conventions in horticulture
Single quotation marks are also used when referring to plants that have registered trademark names such as the Peace Rose. So these fancy names, in some horicultural publications, use the single quotation marks to delineate these registered trademark names from their Latin counterparts.
The hybrid Agastache ‘Apricot Sunrise’, best grown in zone 6, mingles with sheaves of cape fuchsia (Phygelius ‘Salmon Leap’).
It’s worth noting here that this is one case any punctuation is actually outside of the quotation marks.
So, this is it. These are about the only way’s that single quotation marks should be used. Many people try to use them to emphasize words or phrases but this actually is a mistake. Should you desire to emphasize a word or phrase either double quotation marks or italics is the appropriate move.
So, I hope this has helped some of your confusion. If you see problems with this text, please feel free to comment below.