Quotation Marks: An Endangered Species

If the prospect of reading a post about quotation marks doesn’t cause you to roll your eyes to heaven, then please read on.

These humble, comma-like marks have been getting a makeover in recent times. They’ve been swapping places. Sometimes, they’ve disappeared altogether.

Single and Double Quotes

When we were at school, we were taught that when a character spoke, you put double quotation marks around their words.

“Look, John,” said Mary.

But now in books, dialogue is blocked off with single quotes.

‘Look John,’ said Mary.

Double quotation marks have been relegated to words in the middle of sentences.

Mary told John she planned to “kick the habit” as soon as the New Year rolled round.


If you’ve ever read a book where dialogue begins with a line like —, that’s an em-dash. Joyce was the most famous user of this style of quotation mark, but it’s been creeping into vogue again in the last 10 years.

— Look, John, said Mary.

And in some books, there is a complete absence of any kind of quotation marks.

Why Should We Care

Because quotation marks give people a voice. Using single quotation marks does tidy up the text. But using em-dashes or leaving out quotation marks altogether makes it hard to know when a character has started or  finished speaking. To connect with a character, I need to feel they’re speaking to me. I’ve had to abandon books with em-dashes because the lines between dialogue and text are too blurred. I don’t feel the character is speaking to me, therefore I don’t feel the connection and I lose interest.

I’ve been told that creative writing tutors are now recommending the use of em-dashes because they actually make dialogue clearer. But what’s the point of using a punctuation mark that causes confusion? Punctuation is there for a reason, to make yourself understood. And no author, no matter how experimental or avant garde, is above the r need to be understood.

I’m looking forward to some lively debate on this. Let me know what you think. Do you notice the impact of quotation marks? If you use em-dashes, what makes you favour them?







7 thoughts on “Quotation Marks: An Endangered Species

  1. Em-dashed conversation looks like the dialogue is set to bullet points, fine if you’re writing a powerpoint presentation but not a story. I favour single quotes for any speech; it looks neater and more modern.


  2. I’m not sure where you’re seeing the use of single quotation marks to set off direct speech. But in England, where they’re called “inverted commas,” single quotation marks are much more common than double quotation marks for direct speech.

    Also, the use of an em dash to set off speech may become more common because of e-books. I think it’s easy to read on a screen than double quotation marks (and certainly single quotation marks). I think we’ll see some evolution in punctuation because of the need to be read on a screen and not just on a page. For example, I find it very difficult to discern a semicolon from a colon from a comma.


    1. It’s great to get another perspective on this, Laura. The English language is now going through the same kind of transition that it went through when the printed word first took over.

      All novels now use single quotation marks to set off direct speech. Some editors recommend single quotation marks for quotes inserted into sentences and double quotations for quotes within quotes. My head is now spinning…


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