To an American writer or reader, British English is pretty easy to spot with its funny spellings: “neighbOUr,” “colOUr,” “programME,” etc. (To be fair, Brits probably find our spellings strange, too.) Maybe this has something to do with their addiction to Bubble and Squeek. I hate to say it, I really do, but British punctuation makes more sense than American punctuation, at least in one regard.
The British punctuation conventions for quotations are more logical than the American English conventions.
1. Quoting a statement: Following the British conventions, the punctuation that separates a quotation from the rest of a sentence occurs OUTSIDE the quotation marks. In American conventions, it occurs INSIDE.
British: Bob said that this “is not our fight”.
The final period occurs outside the last quotation mark because it is not part of the quoted text. In this case, the period is not being quoted; the words are. Thus, only the words are in the quotation marks.
American: Bob said that this “is not our fight.”
The final period occurs inside the quotation mark. Why? Because that’s the rule, so do it.
Notice that American conventions do place the punctuation OUTSIDE the quotation marks in some cases.
American: Did he say, “Let’s fire everyone”?
In this case, the question mark is not part of the quoted text. It is part of the larger sentence, so it goes outside the quote. Just like the British do. Colons are handled the same way.
2. Using single and double quotes: In British conventions, double quotes are used for text that is exactly quoted, and single quotes (called “inverted commas” in British conventions) are reserved for text that is not directly quoted or for emphasizing a word or words. In this way, the reader knows whether the material inside is an actual quote from someone or something, or if the writer is trying to create emphasis. In American conventions, double quotes are used for everything, and the reader has to guess or figure it out from the context.
British: Alfred was ‘happy’ after drinking.
The use of the inverted commas lets the reader know that “happy” may mean something other than “joyous.” The writer is not actually quoting someone.
American: Alfred was “happy” after drinking.
Is the writer quoting someone else, perhaps someone who observed Alfred? Or should the reader understand that “happy” is not being used according to its common definition? Who knows. Your guess is as good as mine.
3. Designating words as words: Following the British conventions, the punctuation that separates a quoted word occurs OUTSIDE the quotation marks. In American conventions, it occurs INSIDE.
British: The words ‘hot’, ‘sexy’, and ‘foxy’ all mean the same thing: ‘attractive’.
The commas separating the words in the series are outside the quotation marks. After all, the comma is not part of the word, so they do not belong inside the quotation marks with the word. Also, the final period occurs after the quotation mark for the same reason.
American: The words “hot,” “sexy,” and “foxy” all mean the same thing: “attractive.”
The commas separating the words are inside the quotation marks, which is odd because they aren’t part of the word being specified. The final period is also inside the quotation mark, which is odd for the same reason. Why do we do it this way? Because it’s the rule, so do it.
What’s the point? As editors and writing instructors, we get many questions about where to put commas, periods, etc. when using quotation marks. By comparing the two with examples, I hope that you can determine which is correct for you, whether you use American or British conventions.
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