*Single Quotation Marks as Quotation Marks 'Lite'? Nope.

Since we started talking about quotation marks last week, I might as well point out something a lot of the writers I edit don't know. Single quotation marks don't exist to be used when you kind of want to use quotation marks but also kind of don't. They're not a halfway point between quotation marks and nothing. They have a very specific job to do.

In American English, single quotation marks denote a quotation within another quotation. John said, "I cried when he said, 'Here's looking at you, kid.'"

What if you want to put a quotation within a quotation within a third quotation? Then alternate regular quotation marks with single quotation marks: “Bob told Mary, ‘Please say “howdy.”’” There’s a reason you don’t see this often. It lends itself to a messy page and reader confusion. So try to avoid nesting too many quotes within one another.

It’s a common mistake to think of single quotation marks as sort of quotation marks lite – as though they carry half the power of regular quotation marks. But that’s not how they work. Anytime you want to signify a word as a word, you use regular quotation marks. That is, if you’re talking about the word “lariat,” you put it in quotation marks, not single quotation marks (unless, of course, it all falls within a larger quotation).

The only seeming exception occurs in newspaper headlines. Many newspapers use single quotation marks instead of regular quotation marks in their headlines, but that’s just a style convention. It doesn't mean you should use single quotation marks for anything other than their main job: indicating a quotation within a quotation.