The Brits Got It Right: Punctuation with quotations

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.

british punctuation

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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Filed under Authors, Editing, Mechanics, Personal, Writing

9 responses to “The Brits Got It Right: Punctuation with quotations

  1. DRF

    I think this may be a case of the grass being greener on the other side of the Atlantic. The American style makes things simpler and easier to work with. The British have a half-dozen rules about whether to put the periods and commas inside or outside.

  2. Being on the ‘other’ side of the Atlantic and standing in the green grass I don’t think that we have any complicated rules. They certainly seem logical to me, but that could just be because I grew up with them.

    The punctuation goes inside if being quoted and outside if not. Simple really.

    From the examples given, it’s the American rules that seem more complicated. The question mark being outside the quotes but the period being inside, for example…

  3. Wonderful, wonderful clarification. I follow American conventions, but the British way makes more sense. Except I didn’t know it was the British way. I always call it “the way that makes more sense” in my head. Heh.

  4. Jacob

    The following British punctuation, as you stated, does NOT make logical sense, and I’ll tell you why.

    Bob said that “this is not our fight”. It is very possible that the period here should be a part of the quote. The statement Bog made could either be a short phrase inside a larger continued sentence or the end of a sentence. If it is in fact the end of a sentence that Bob stated, then the period should most definitly be inside the quote. In other words, he stated a period!

    Conversely, the American example of the quotation not including the (?) is of course obvious and logical because the person quoted is not asking a question; rather, the person quoting is asking the question.

    In short, the American approach in both instances makes perfect sense and the British approach relies solely on a rule for the sake of a rule, not based on the correct written interpretation of spoken language.

  5. Beantown81

    Jacob, your example actually proves why the American version makes no sense at all. Even if Bob’s statement was a short phrase inside a larger continued sentence, the American rule forces a period inside the quote, even though that period was never said and this was not the end of a Bob’s sentence.

    While it is true that Bob’s statement might have been the end of the sentence and Bob may have stated the period this does not explain why the period HAS TO be inside the quotation marks. The quote is accurate with or without the period because Bob said all of the things inside the quote.

    I agree that the stated period could be of some importance and it’s true that the British system forces us to basically ignore that period whether we want to or not but the American system doesn’t resolve the issue either. All it does is move the period. It does not tell us whether that period was part of the original statement because the period inside the quotes is also being used to signify the end of the sentence that includes the quoted text.

    If we want to entirely accurate, the rule should allow for a period then a quotation mark and then another period. I guess the Brits just figured that would be too confusing.

  6. Vogue

    This is all very interesting. I write a lot, too, but I don’t stick to any one convention. For example, I follow the American convention in Rules 1 and 2, and the British in Rule 3. My justification is that these look more aesthetic.

  7. Claire

    THANK YOU!!!!! Unnecessary inside-the-quotes punctuation is a pet peeve of mine!!!

  8. Mike

    Per British rules, are these correctly punctuated?

    I’m tired of his ‘Where do we go now?’, ‘What’s up?’, and ‘Why now?’ questions.

    The questions ‘Who?’, ‘What?’, ‘When?’, ‘Where?’ and ‘How?’ still remain unanswered.

    “I’m tired”, he said, “of his foolish antics.”
    (Comma follows the ending quote mark after ‘tired’ because it doesn’t belong to the first quote. If we put the comma inside, we’re saying that the original sentence would be punctuated thusly: I’m tired, of his foolish antics.

    Thank you.

  9. I have a few questions that relate to BrE punctuation with quotation marks. I have explained each of my answers below each respective question. I do think that I may have these right based on my understanding of the principles. No recasts, please.

    (1) Mike said, ‘I overheard Joe say, “I will be filing for a divorce tomorrow.”‘
    [I believe that the proper ending punctuation in BrE is .”‘ (NOT: “.’) as exampled above.]

    (2) Mike said, “I will be filing for a divorce tomorrow.”
    [The full stop goes inside the quote marks because it belongs to the quote, not to the sentence as a whole. NOT: Mike said, “I will be filing for a divorce tomorrow”.]

    (3) The sign said ‘Swim At Your Own Risk.”
    [Full stop goes inside because a full stop appeared on the sign (after the word “Risk”.]

    (4) The sign said ‘Swim At Your Own Risk”.
    [Full stop goes outside the ending quote marks because there wasn’t a full stop on the sign.]

    (5) “I will attend the ceremonies,” Joel said, “but I won’t if Harold is going.”
    [The comma goes inside the introductory quote (ie “I will attend the ceremonies,”) because the sentence requires it in terms of punctuation. The original sentence is ‘I will attend the ceremonies, but I won’t if Harold is going.’]

    (6) When Ben said, “I don’t do well with ultimatums”, he incurred the wrath of Officer Smith.
    [Comma outside because not part of the quote.]

    (7) “I know of lots of people in my industry and others who have gone to private equity simply to avoid the vitriol that is poured upon successful businesses”, he said.
    [Comma outside.]

    (8) When Jamie screamed “Oh my God!” she startled everybody.
    [No commas, methinks.]

    (9) When Jamie asked “Where’s the liquid refreshments?” her husband pointed to the refrigerator.
    [No commas?]

    (10) The questions “Who?”, “What?”, “When?”, “Why?”, and “How?” remain unanswered.
    [I think commas are required as shown.]

    (11) I’m tired of her “Where were you?”, “How long were you out?”, and “Did you flirt with any girls?” questions.
    [I think commas are required as shown.]

    (12) “I am sick and tired of her excuses”, Zach said.
    [Comma outside because not part of the original quote. Somebody told me that the comma goes inside because it converts to a full stop to end the quoted sentence. I’m confused on this one.]

    (13) I don’t like his sentence “I am what I am.”
    (Full stop inside? And do I need a second one outside the quotes – ie “… what I am.”.)

    (14) Did she ask “How much longer?”?
    (Are two question marks needed – or just the question mark inside the quotes?)

    (15) I love the adage ‘Every cloud has a silver lining.’
    (Full stop goes inside because it belongs to the quotation, not the sentence.)

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