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A Word, Please: Too many single quotes are needing a mate

A quotation mark is made up of two little doohickeys. No quotation mark is made up of no little doohickeys. So if you kind of want a quotation mark but kind of don’t, you just use one little doohickey, right?

That seems to be the consensus among most of the writers I edit, the bloggers I read and the people who email me. I know this because they write stuff like this: The monthly payment you make to your insurance company is called a ‘premium.’ And they write stuff like: When I walked into the stock room, he was ‘working’ on his cell phone. And they write stuff like: The word ‘phenomenon’ is from the Latin.


In every case, the writer doesn’t want to quote someone, exactly. He or she just wants to call attention to a specific word or group of words, either to introduce the term or to use it ironically.

So rather than use the quotation marks, the ones made of two doohickeys, they figure they’ll go halfway and just use the mark that’s just one doohickey. Call them “quotation marks lite.”


Unfortunately, there’s no such thing. When you kind of want to use quotation marks and kind of don’t, here are your choices: Use quotation marks or don’t. The single quotation mark, the symbol made up of a lone doohickey, has its own job, and it’s not to straddle the gulf between maybe wanting quotation marks and maybe not.

The single quotation mark’s duties are identical to those of the regular double-doohickey quotation mark. It just has a different workplace, so to speak. It works within other quotations.

So if you’re quoting someone who is quoting someone else, that’s when you would use the single quotation marks: Jim said, “Pat said, ‘Howdy, everyone.’” Notice that the single quotation marks are identifying words attributed to a speaker, exactly as the speaker said them. That’s the primary job of both regular and single quotation marks.

But they have another job — one that’s probably the source of all the confusion. Quotation marks and single quotation marks, besides indicating what someone said or wrote, can indicate “words as words.” They set off words that you’re talking about or calling attention to.


For example, in this column I write about language issues like “healthy” versus “healthful” and “among” versus “between.” Quotation marks can also introduce an unfamiliar term. For example, in this column I sometimes talk about verbs of being, which are known as “copular verbs.”

And of course, quotation marks can indicate irony or skepticism. The former is a lot of fun: My cat is a real “genius.” The latter can be handy too: We ordered the “organic” sea bass. These are often called “scare quotes.”

In all these functions, single quotation marks work the same way, except within other quotations: Bob said, “We ordered the ‘organic’ sea bass.”

For some reason, a lot of people think that the job of calling out words as words is the sole domain of single quotation marks. It’s as if they worry that if they use double quotation marks, readers will think they’re trying to quote someone.


Or perhaps they’re uncertain of when, exactly, to use quotation marks.

The rules are hazy. Take the sentence: The word “phenomenon” is from the Latin. Could you lose the quotation marks? Yes because, in this sentence at least, “phenomenon” could not be misconstrued as having some other function in the sentence.

And because quotation marks disrupt the visual flow of the sentence, I recommend using them only when they help. But when you do, remember your little doohickeys should number two.

JUNE CASAGRANDE is the author of “It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences.” She can be reached at