See Punctuation

Inverted commas (also known as quotation marks, speech marks and/or scare quotes)

Inverted commas (also known as quotation marks, speech marks and/or scare quotes)

Inverted commas can be single or double (depending on their purpose):

  • EXAMPLE: ‘the University’ 
  • EXAMPLE:  "the University"

Inverted commas are used for a variety of purposes which vary in British and American English (so be prepared to see different usages in your reading of texts).

standard British usage of single inverted commas

Single inverted commas (in British English) are mainly used to:

  • mark the beginning and end of direct speech (i.e. a speaker’s words written down exactly as they were spoken).
    EXAMPLE: 'What time does the lecture begin?' she asked.
    [NOTE: in American English, the rule is to use double quotation marks: "What time does the lecture begin?" she asked.]
  • indicate a technical or otherwise potentially unfamiliar word.
    EXAMPLE: What does 'integrated circuit' mean?
  • indicate ironyinaccuracy, or scepticism (when used in this way inverted commas are sometimes called scare quotes
    EXAMPLE:  I met a teacher, a journalist, and an ‘artist’. 
    NOTE: scare quotes around 'artist' act as a distancing device, probably signalling doubt about the person’s credentials as an artist.
  • show a title 
    EXAMPLE:  Steven Pinker's new book is called 'The Sense of Style'.

OTHER USE OF single Inverted commas: EMPHASIS

Single inverted commas (in British English) are sometimes also used to 'emphasise' a word or phrase. 

However, this usage can create confusion for your reader, if they are unsure whether the inverted commas indicate irony or emphasis. For this reason, using the inverted comma for emphasis is best avoided.

  • AVOID: The restaurant only serves 'fresh' fish (it is unclear for the reader whether the writer wishes to emphasise or cast doubt on the freshness).

We would recommend that you use bold letters for emphasis: 

  • EXAMPLE: The restaurant only serves fresh fish.  

Double quotation marks (in British English) 

Double quotation marks (in British English) are used to indicate direct speech within direct speech (use single inverted commas for direct speech and double quotation marks to enclose quoted material within). 

  • EXAMPLE: She still sounds amazed when she says: ‘We were turned down because “we represented too small a minority of the population.” They could still get away with saying things like that then.’

Sentence punctuation and inverted commas 

There should be a comma, full stopquestion mark, or an exclamation mark at the end of a piece of speech. This is placed inside the closing inverted comma or commas.

  • EXAMPLE: ‘Can I come in?’ he asked.
  • EXAMPLE: ‘You’re right,’ he said.
  • EXAMPLE: 'I didn't expect to win.'

If direct speech comes after the information about who is speaking, you should use a comma to introduce the piece of speech, placed before the first inverted comma.

  • EXAMPLE: Steve replied, ‘No problem.’

If the direct speech is broken up by information about who is speaking, you need a comma (or a question mark or an exclamation mark) to end the first piece of speech and a full stop or another comma before the second piece (before the inverted comma or commas):

  • EXAMPLE: ‘You’re right,’ he said. ‘It feels strange.’

Reference list

MacMillan Dictionary. Blog 'The emphatic use of quotation marks'. Retrieved from

Oxford Living Dictionaries. 'punctuation/in-direct speech' Retrieved from

Oxford Living Dictionaries. 'punctuation/inverted commas - quotation marks' Retrieved from