A perplexing problem for many writers and authors is with regard to punctuation and capitalization, particularly concerning dialogue. As with many things in writing, there are differences between what is deemed acceptable in the USA, Canada, and elsewhere, and how it is done in the UK.
The publishing industry in Britain has long followed that editors’ bible New Hart’s Rules: the Handbook of Style for Writers and Editors, published by the OUP, a goldmine of information on standard conventions for the written word. Of course, some things have changed and evolved over time, but the basics have not.
First, to answer that constant chestnut: “Should I use double or single quotes in my writing?” The answer is simple – you use whichever you prefer as long as you are consistent and do not switch between the two.
The USA prefers the double quotation mark. This is, in fact, how millions of children in the UK were taught to write dialogue in school – with the good old double inverted commas. UK English (and as in Hart’s Rules) favours the single mark, but there is no rule that says you cannot use double if that is your preference. In fact, using double quotes has its advantages in that it saves a lot of time and hassle if you are considering publishing in the USA. Converting single to double is never as straightforward as it sounds, even when using the Search and Replace function.
What is important is consistency in style throughout your document. Whichever you choose, ALL quotes, including single words or phrases, as well as direct speech/dialogue should be in that choice, i.e. either all double or all single. The only exception would be a quote within a quote/dialogue (see New Hart’s Rules p.85).
There is a school of thought that direct speech is set within double and or word or phrase within single. Not so in UK English. Take a look at any professionally published novel by the major publishing houses, and you will see this is the case. It’s one or the other, not a mixture. The extracts below show how this should be done.
Example 1 Single within double quotation marks
“I was telling Elaine about it and she said, ‘I don’t believe you.’ It took me ages to convince her.”
Example 2 All quotes in single quotation marks, even single words/phrases/statements
‘Sorry,’ said Anita, ‘I’m going to have to leave you to your own devices again.’ There was a large pile of correspondence waiting in her little ‘office’, the cupboard beneath the stairs.
Punctuation Within Dialogue
Again, USA English and UK English use different conventions. The UK places punctuation inside quotation marks in direct speech, and outside in quotations or individual words/phrases; the USA seems to favour inside for both. Example 2 above shows an example of UK style.
If you have a publisher, it’s worthwhile checking what their preferred house style is with regard to quotation marks and its punctuation.
One final point today: Always use commas before or surrounding the name of a person being directly addressed in dialogue (see Example 3). For example, the following statements are both correct but each has a different meaning.
“Come and see Michael.” and “Come and see, Michael.” Can you see the difference?
In the second statement, Fred is speaking directly with Michael; the comma use before Michael’s name makes this clear. In the first statement, Fred is urging whomever he is in direct dialogue with to come and see someone called Michael.
Example 3 Commas surrounding name of person directly addressed
‘Sorry, Elaine, I can’t come today,’ said Anita. ‘I have to go out.’
‘That’s okay, Anita, I know you have to go and see Michael.’