The American standard is to use double quotation marks ("example") and the British standard is to use single quotation marks ('example'). Style guides insist that you should be consistent regarding which mark you use, regardless of circumstance.

My question is whether or not it is acceptable to use the alternate quotation mark to denote something that is a quote, but is not dialogue.

For example, as a kind of joke, I wrote:

'Of course I know,' he probably would have said.

The "he" is an animal, incapable of speech. I know that readers sometimes jump from quotation to quotation, ignoring attributions, so I used single quotation marks to make it more obvious that he wasn't actually saying those words. Is this acceptable?

Thanks, everyone.

2 Answers 2


This is an example of direct quoted thought, which is a construct that only occurs in fiction. (Actually, direct quoted putative thought, but that is beside the point.)

I do seem to recall seeing cases of single quotes being used to denote direct quoted thought, but I think what is right that the more common convention is to use italics.

Bear in mind though that your typical reader has no idea what the convention for this is, which means that there is not a lot of benefit in sticking to the convention. Out here on the borders of of usage, you have some liberty to be innovative with the conventions you use. For instance, maybe you are already using italics for speech in a different language, so now you need something else for direct quoted thought. No one is going to send you to the literary penalty box for an innovative convention, as long as you make it clear in context what that convention means (which you do here).

If you are published professionally, you editor will change it to suit their house or personal style, in which case there is not a lot of point worrying about it. If you are self publishing, on not writing for publication, then you are captain of your own ship; do whatever you want as long as you make it clear.

  • Thanks. I suppose I should have phrased the question as "does this usage actually serve any purpose." In the realm of fiction, the rules can be bent to the point that any question of acceptability is a matter of opinion and circumstance. Dec 30, 2016 at 13:39
  • Well, acceptability is always a matter of opinion -- the opinion of those doing the accepting. You can't decide what is acceptable to others, only to yourself. My point is that conventions for very obscure bits of usage are sometimes a bit more malleable than conventions for mainstream usage.
    – user16226
    Dec 30, 2016 at 13:42

In fiction, quotation marks signify verbal utterances. If something is not said, do not put it in quotation marks, because that would confuse readers.

You can put thoughts in italics:

"Who are you?" she asked.
That's none of your business, he thought.

Reflections on actual or potential utterances – that is, the narrator or a character thinking about what someone has said or might have said – remain without markup:

"Who are you?" she asked.
That's none of your business, John might have said, had he been less afraid of Joan.

  • I disagree. Quotation marks are for quotations. Any words that are meant to be parsed as a whole. Much like you could say: When I was a kid, my father used to say, "Don't start fights you can't finish." Or I read one of his books once. In one passage, he wrote, "I was born and raised in California." Just because something isn't said, doesn't mean it isn't a quotation. Scare quotes are also a thing. Dec 30, 2016 at 7:09
  • 1
    @Typoglyphic In fiction, the convention is that quotation marks signify dialog. Dialog is what the characters say right now. If the narrator reflects on what a character might have said (which, by the way, is not a quotation, because nothing was said) or if a character thinks of what was said, then that is not dialog and must not be marked as such. That is the convention.
    – user5645
    Dec 30, 2016 at 8:58

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.