a man standing in front of a wall of graffiti

Just as these units of punctuation are known by various names, ‘inverted commas’, ‘quotation marks’ or ‘speech marks’, so they can be used in a variety of ways. Different countries and different house style-guides use them differently. If you are following the Chicago Manual of Style, Harvard, Oxford or MHRA, to name a few, there may be differing rules. While there are some rules in American English, frustratingly, there are no fixed rules in UK English, but what follow are the generally accepted UK rules and the most common practice. What is important, especially when writing an extended piece, is to be consistent with the style you have chosen.

Single and double inverted commas exist to create a distinction between quoting something that a book or a person said, or simply drawing attention to something that you are saying with your writing.

Single inverted commas

The term ‘inverted commas’ may be the most apt because that describes exactly how these punctuation marks appear, in contrast to the term ‘quotation marks’ or ‘speech marks’ since these ‘marks’ may not necessarily be marking a quotation or a speech act.

Do you see how some words have been put in single inverted commas in the paragraph above?

The following sentence also exemplifies this,

  • Many larger houses were being split up into so-called ‘flats’.

The words in single inverted commas are not quoting what another person is saying, but are being highlighted or set off with single inverted commas to alert the reader to a specific word or words, or to cause a word to stand out as an example that is being given.

Double inverted commas

Double inverted commas could rightly be called ‘speech marks’ or ‘quotation marks’, as these are the marks that traditionally set off a piece of dialogue, as with the following example,

  • Sarah said, “I feel so hungry. Shall we get something to eat?”
    • “Well,” said John, “we could try that new restaurant.”

Or to set off a quote that has been said by someone else:

  • Hamlet’s task is to avenge a “foul and most unnatural murder”.

Punctuation within and around inverted commas

As you will hopefully have noticed with the examples above, when inverted commas are used surrounding punctuation, such as commas, full stops and exclamation marks, they appear outside the single inverted commas:

  • Jane said that it was outdated to call someone ‘dear’.
  • Many larger houses were being split up into so-called ‘flats’.
  • Sarah always used to say that people who skipped breakfast were ‘weirdos’.

The punctuation is a part of the sentence, and not a part of the highlighted text itself, so any full stops or exclamation marks that would follow a word in inverted commas go outside the commas, and not within them.

On the contrary, when inverted commas are used for dialogue, the other punctuation marks appear within the inverted commas, as with the given example,

  • Sarah said, “I feel so hungry. Shall we get something to eat?”
    • “Well,” said John, “we could try that new restaurant.”
  • “Wait!” shouted Harry.

For further information on other punctuation marks, such as commas, please see the relevant article.

Quotation marks within quotation marks

On occasion, it is necessary to put a quotation within a quotation, as with the following example,

  • John said, “I was reading an article yesterday, and the author stated, ‘Education is the most powerful weapon that you can use to change the world.'”

As you can see, John is reading a quotation from an author within his own quoted direct speech, so both require some form of inverted commas.

It is NOT acceptable to use single inverted commas within single inverted commas, and it is NOT acceptable to use double inverted commas within double inverted commas. So, IF you have chosen to represent quoted direct speech with single inverted commas, or your house style-guide requires this, then your quotation within a quotation will need to be in double inverted commas:

  • John said, ‘I was reading an article yesterday, and the author stated, “Education is the most powerful weapon that you can use to change the world.”‘

A worksheet for you to practise with:

Hint: The use of capital letters for some words will help you.

  1. My dog is named Spot and he loves to play a game called bump with me.
  2. Sarah said The sky is so blue it makes me feel alive.
  3. I enjoy listening to a song called Music Soothes my Soul.
  4. The beach is my favourite place to relax and unwind, said Tom.
  5. She sings Simply the Best like a super star and her voice is captivating.
  6. I like to read books like The Lord of the Rings, they transport me to different worlds.
  7. Sarah asked, Did Mark really say, I’ll be there at 7 o’clock?
  8. The teacher explained, As Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet, To be, or not to be: that is the question.
  9. Mike told his friend, My boss told me, You need to work harder and meet the deadline, but I think he’s being unreasonable.
  10. The historian recounted, In his famous speech, Martin Luther King Jr. declared, I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character.
  11. Emily said to her sister, Mum asked me, Did you remember to feed the cat? and I had to admit that I had forgotten.
  12. Mary said, During the meeting, the CEO quoted Albert Einstein, saying, Imagination is more important than knowledge.
  13. The journalist reported, The politician defended his position by quoting a famous saying, Actions speak louder than words.
  14. Tom shared with his friends, In his speech, the professor cited a study and quoted one of the researchers, who said, Our findings indicate a strong correlation between exercise and mental well-being.
  15. The author wrote, In her book, she referenced a historical document that quoted a letter from Winston Churchill, where he wrote, My dear, you are an egg. A ruddy great egg. But we like eggs.
  16. The presenter mentioned, In his interview, the actor recalled a conversation with his mentor, who quoted Oscar Wilde, stating, Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.

If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to enter them below.


Crystal, David. Making a Point: The Pernickety Story of English Punctuation (Profile Books, 2016)

Dreyer, Benjamin. Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style (Penguin Random House, 2020)

Gwynne, N. M. Gwynne’s Grammar: The Ultimate Introduction to Grammar and the Writing of Good English (Ebury Press/Random House, 2013)

Huddleston, Rodney, and others. The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (Cambridge University Press, 2002)

Quirk, Randolph, and others. A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, reprint edn (Pearson, 2011)

Seely, John. Oxford A – Z of Grammar & Punctuation (Oxford University Press, 2020)

Trask, R. L. The Penguin Guide to Punctuation (Penguin Books, 1997)

New Hart’s Rules: The Handbook of Style for Writers and Editors (Oxford University Press, 2005)



  1. Hello! This is a helpful guide on using inverted commas or quotation marks. I appreciate the clarification between single and double inverted commas and their respective uses.

    My question for you is, do you have any additional tips for ensuring consistency when it comes to using inverted commas, especially in longer pieces of writing? It can get tricky, so any extra guidance would be greatly appreciated. Thanks for sharing this informative post!

    • Hi Hanna. Thank you for your comment. Yes, it can become tricky, especially if you have to write a long essay on a novel, or a commentary on another piece of written work in which you regularly need to quote short extracts, or even fragments of texts within extracts of another. 

      My personal technique is to write longer pieces in Word, or whatever processor you use, using an asterisk or some other symbol that is not used elsewhere in the document (as single inverted commas, for example, can also be apostrophes). Then, when I am proof-editing the piece at the end and I am satisfied with my content, I use the ‘find’ function and search for all my asterisks and attend to all quotation marks individually.

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