Quoting for the indecisive.

So, you’ve sat down, cranked up the PC, put the coffee mug within easy reach and the cuddly bear on top of the monitor. You’re ready to start your next novel!
You’ve only been clattering away for two minutes when you run into your first editorial decision:


Single quotes or double quotes?

To be honest, the decision isn’t usually that hard; it often depends on the country where you were educated. I was raised (barely) in the UK, so ‘single’ should be my quotation  mark of choice.  However, from novel to novel, I’ve shown a worrying tendency to flip between the two. As near as I can make out, I seem to have settled on one basic rule of thumb: If I believe the book is mainly for the British market then I’ll lean towards single quotes. I’ll use double quotes for work with a more international feel.

As to my personal preference…well, I’m still on the fence I’m afraid. I think single quotes look more elegant and less intrusive when seen on the page, and by the same token, double quotes stand out more and so are much easier to spot and separate, especially if the piece is dialogue-heavy. Double quotes also have the advantage of being easier to parse when the quotation contains apostrophes:

‘It’s never going to work,’ Mary said.

That’s not too bad, but when I see it, I get a momentary brain-jam where I think that the quote is just ‘It’.  I find this sentence much easier to read:

“It’s never going to work,” Mary said.

There you go; clean and quick.

Still, when the book is ready to be sent to the copy-editor, I find myself wracked with doubt: Maybe the the other type of quotation mark would be a better fit?

Damn you OCD! It doesn’t really matter!

But I’ve come up with a pretty fail-safe way of dealing with it. I keep a master copy of the manuscript in which I have stuck doggedly to this format:

  • Apostrophes use the normal apostrophe (quel supris).
  • Quotes use double quotation marks.
  • Quotes within quotes use the backquote characters (`). So I might say something like this: “What do you mean `I can’t find the rubber chicken`?”
  • For quotes within quotes within quotes I use … actually if that ever happened, I’d just rewrite that bit.

If I suddenly decide to replace the quotation marks from single to double, then I have a pretty simple search and replace to carry out:

  1. Replace all double quotes with single quotes.
  2. Replace all back quotes with double quotes.
  3. Save the document under a new name.

 Seems like a faff, I know, but having a distinct character for embedded quotes means I can search and replace without messing up the apostrophes (which unfortunately take double duty as single quotation marks).

‘What do you mean “I can’t find the rubber chicken”?’

Fortunately, I don’t have to do this that often because for me it isn’t much of a time-saver. I have a deep-rooted mistrust of global search & replace, so I’d have to read the whole book again – just to be sure 🙂

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