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When a character is mentally recalling prior dialog verbatim, should the dialog be surrounded by double-quotes or single-quotes, be italicized, or get no special treatment at all?

For example:

O'Malley remembered the witness's directions precisely: "Take the first left on Pine, then the second right on Maple."

O'Malley remembered the witness's directions precisely: 'Take the first left on Pine, then the second right on Maple.'

O'Malley remembered the witness's directions precisely: Take the first left on Pine, then the second right on Maple.

O'Malley remembered the witness's directions precisely: Take the first left on Pine, then the second right on Maple.

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American English convention is double quotes for dialog, with single quotes reserved for nested dialog, so we can rule single quotes out. The other three are all legitimate choices, with differing impact.

O'Malley remembered the witness's directions precisely: "Take the first left on Pine, then the second right on Maple."

This is being reported to us by the narrator, and should be taken verbatim as exactly what was said. I think this works, although it distances us a tiny bit from O'Malley in favor of the narrator.

O'Malley remembered the witness's directions precisely: Take the first left on Pine, then the second right on Maple.

The italics indicate these are O'Malley's thoughts --he is recalling the conversation in his mind. In my opinion, this is the most appropriate approach for your desired impact.

O'Malley remembered the witness's directions precisely: Take the first left on Pine, then the second right on Maple.

There's no visual cuing at all here --the conclusion is that the narrator is paraphrasing. This is neither what the original speaker said, verbatim, nor is it reporting O'Malley's exact thoughts. There are times and places for this approach, but I don't think it serves you here.

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  • Thanks, this is exactly the kind of breakdown I was looking for.
    – dhinson919
    May 26 at 23:11
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I would suggest going with the italicized version as we get to be inside the characters head somewhat since he is recalling an experience he had, as opposed to having the narrator spell out a scene which we don't really know happened or not. It gives the reader a chance to get a little more involved with the story.

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