On my to-do list was a note to write you a post about the correct use of quotation marks. Then I discovered that Jonathon Owen over at Arrant Pedantry had already done so. His article is useful and thorough, so I’ll send you over there to learn How to Use Quotation Marks. He even has a nifty flow chart.
I especially like Owen’s comments about scare quotes. Those are the quotes people put around a word to draw attention to it for … well, no good reason, actually, as Owen explains. Whenever you are tempted to put scare quotes around a term, I want you to imagine you are speaking to an audience and when you get to that part of your writing, you make “air quotes” with your “fingers” every time you put “scare quotes” around a term.
Because, yeah. That’s how useless and annoying they are.
Use Single Quotation Marks Properly
What Owen does not address is the single quotation mark, which I find people also don’t know how to use. I often see single quotes used as scare quotes. Those just come right out.
Single quotation marks are used around terms in some specialized fields—Chicago identifies philosophy, linguistics, and horticulture among them—but if you are writing for the general market, this is not an appropriate style choice.
To draw attention to a term when you define it, use italics: Horticulture is from the Latin hortus, which means garden.
In a book written for the general market, the only place you’re likely to need single quotation marks is within a quotation. You may remember this Bible excerpt from the article on Scripture quotations:
Then the prophet Shemaiah came to Rehoboam and to the leaders of Judah who had assembled in Jerusalem for fear of Shishak, and he said to them, “This is what the Lᴏʀᴅ says, ‘You have abandoned me; therefore, I now abandon you to Shishak.’”—2 Chronicles 12:5 (NIV)
There are no quotation marks around the excerpt because it is a block quotation. Shemaiah’s dialogue is in double quotation marks, and the line in which he’s quoting the Lord is in single quotations. If this were being run into text, it would get even more interesting, because then I would have to put, “…and he said to them, ‘This is what the Lᴏʀᴅ says, “You have abandoned me; therefore, I now abandon you to Shishak.”’”
You see what happened there? I have one set of double quotation marks around the excerpt. Within that is a set of single quotation marks around the part Shemaiah speaks aloud, and within that there are double quotes around the line in which he’s quoting the Lord. Like nested boxes.
Which is why I originally set it as a block quotation.