Q: I grew up learning and practicing that single quotes belong within double quotes, or sometimes in headlines. But everybody seems to be using single quotes now. Have double quotes gone the way of the buggy whip?
A: We haven’t noticed an increase in the use of single quotation marks—at least not in American usage. Could it be that you’ve been reading a lot of British authors lately?
In the American system of punctuation, double quotation marks are used to enclose quoted material. Any interior quotations—that is, words quoted within a larger quotation—are enclosed in single quotation marks.
The British convention is just the reverse. The British generally use single quotation marks, while the interior quotations are enclosed within double quote marks. That’s why novels and other materials published in the UK can look startling to an American reader.
So if you’re seeing more single quote marks in writing by Americans, you’re seeing something unusual. However, as you say, single quote marks are used in most newspaper headlines.
Here’s how the same sentence would be punctuated in the US and UK systems.
American: As Professor Witherspoon told us, “The word ‘fructify’ means to bear fruit.”
British: As Professor Witherspoon told us, ‘The word “fructify” means to bear fruit.’
However, The Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed.) points out that there are exceptions in some specialized kinds of American writing.
In linguistic and phonetic studies, a definition is often enclosed in single quotation marks.
And in horticultural writing, the names of cultivars are sometimes enclosed in single quotation marks.
Check out our books about the English language