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The history of the quotation mark is long and complicated and explained in detail in Wikipedia.
Quote marks for emphasis
The short explanation is that, within a sentence, the single quotation mark might be used to highlight a weird word, a saying, a nickname/epithet or the title of something.
Before decimalisation, a shilling was called a ‘bob’.
‘Old hat’ is a cliche.
Elvis ‘The King of Rock and Roll’ Presley
In William Golding’s ‘The Lord of the Flies’, a group of British boys are stranded on an uninhabited island and the book describes their disastrous attempt to govern themselves.
The positioning of quotation marks, when they appear at the end of a sentence, differs between British English and US English.
English: Marriage is ‘forever’.
US: Marriage is ‘forever.’
Quote marks for quotations
Quotation marks can indicate the extent of a quotation with an opening quotation mark at the start and a closing quotation mark at the end. This would be when the quotation is included within the main body of text.
However, a more accessible style is to indent the quotation, and set it off with a credit line, right aligned. Then, no quotation marks are required.
Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone …
He was my North, my South, my East and West …
I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong. …
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.
WH Auden ‘Funeral blues’
Quotation marks for dialogue
However, quotation marks are more generally used to punctuate dialogue and this is explained in a later lesson.