The most important application of quotation marks in fiction is to signal dialogue. For writers, it's not enough to hope readers realize where the dialogue is. They have to be shown. You can imagine the problems that would come up if quotation marks were gone:
Mary said, I'm going to the house. This bucket is breaking my back. She went back to the house.
Who knows what Mary said, and what she did? Sure, if you reread the section a few times, you'll figure out that Mary said, “I'm going to the house. This bucket is breaking my back.” And then she goes to the house. But if you had to read an entire novel like this, how far would you progress? It would have to be pretty interesting for the readers to continue struggling through it.
Double Quotation Marks
Double quotation marks are used for direct quotation. In fiction, this is likely a direct line of dialogue:
“I'm going home,” she said.
She looked confused. “What about it?”
These marks are also used with the titles of short stories, magazine articles, and songs:
Have you ever read “Indian Camp” by Ernest Hemingway?
Is “Never Again” the name of that song?
Finally, you can sometimes use double quotation marks to denote irony, in a sense that something is “so-called.”
Modern writers tend to use italics to set off words or phrases formerly set in quotation marks. For instance: She was really “messy.” She was really messy. It makes it easier for the reader to tell when someone is speaking. Writers also use italics to denote thought.
Single Quotation Marks
Double quotation marks are used to enclose a direct quotation. But what if there is a quotation within a quotation? In this case, single quotation marks have to be used: “He read the book and said, ‘That was great,’ and so I gave it to him.” This is the only way that single quotation marks are used in American English. On their own, the right-hand quotation mark is known as an apostrophe, and it is used in possessive forms (Mike's, students') and contractions (they're, I've).
Here are basic rules for using quotation marks with other punctuation:
Quotation marks always go outside of the comma or period: “It's time.” “It's time,” she said.
With a semicolon or colon, quotation marks come first: Read the short story “Days of Our Lives” ; discuss. Take a look at “The Hour” : Isn't it a beautiful story?
For question and exclamation marks, it depends on whether the mark belongs to the section inside the quotation marks: “What did she want to know?” Have you read “The Hour” ?