Punctuation Errors: American and British Quotation Marks

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Quotation marks are used to set off speech or quoted sentences and words. Despite its simple role, people tend to get confused about the position of other punctuation in relation to the quotation marks. Should it go inside or outside the quotation marks?

It depends. If you are writing in American English, other punctuation should go inside the quotation marks, even if it is not part of the quoted sentence. Here is an example from the New York Times:

“When we have got a contractor city, say, of 180,000 people, and there hasn’t been a completed prosecution of anybody coming out of Iraq, not one,” he said, “what sort of city in America would be like that, where no one is prosecuted for anything for three years? It’s unthinkable.”

If you are writing in British English, on the other hand, punctuation that is not part of the quoted sentence should be place outside the quotation marks. Here is an example from The Telegraph:

A crisis in the US subprime mortgage market will affect Britain, he said, warning that the housing market is likely to weaken as a result. However, he insisted that the economy is starting from “a very strong position”.

Notice that colons and semicolons are always placed outside the quotation marks, and that you should not finish a sentence with more than one punctuation mark, regardless of the rule you are using.

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25 thoughts on “Punctuation Errors: American and British Quotation Marks”

  1. It has been observed by others that technical writing has migrated to punctuation outside the quotes in order to stay consistant with places were we cannot be ambiguous with the quoted content.

  2. Are there any other names for “Ellipsis”?
    I’ve already heard “omision points”, “three dots”, “three periods”.
    Can we say that?
    Thank you

  3. I really get confused most of the time about punctuation marks. For me if writing is making sense and is not advertentally affecting the meaninf of the sentence punctuation marks should not bother us.

  4. Although we apply the American English conventions for our U.S. clients, the British conventions around quotations make more sense to us. This is especially true for quotation marks indicating specific words, for example when creating a list. (e.g.: I like the words “friendly,” “happy,” and “joyous.”)

    Note: When using American English conventions, the end punctuation for quotations may also be outside of the quotation marks if the sentence ends in a question mark that is not part of the quote, as in:
    Did he really write “punctuation marks should not bother us”?

    Correct use of punctuation not only helps a reader to make sense of the text but also helps the author make sure he or she is correctly communicating the intended ideas.

  5. What about quotations around apostrophes that represent the slang pronunciation of a word? For example:
    As Bob Dylan said, “the times, they are a-changin’.”

    Since the apostrophe is not like a single quotation and it is not a full stop (as the period is), shouldn’t it remain within the period?

  6. Perhaps I have missed this point elsewhere but in British English we use what are called inverted commas when enclosing text that has not been directly quoted or to emphasise a word or words.

    eg. as in a previous example, the list would be ‘friendly’, ‘happy’, ‘joyous’…

  7. @Sarah: I think that the matter of the inverted commas was not mentioned so as to focus on the location of the more pedestrian commas in such lists.

    By the way, inverted commas are referred to in American English as ‘single quotes’, as opposed to “double quotes”. An American who refers to something in quotes almost always means double quotes. I think few here in the States would know what the phrase “inverted commas” would mean.

    @Discussion at Large:
    While I am an American and aware of the American system, I believe any system is amenable to change. Here is how I would write the list:

    I like the words “friendly”, “happy”, and “joyous”.

    I use the justification of logic; that the quoted item should not include anything extraneous. My usage turns out to be the same as the British usage (except for the single quotes), but I wasn’t aware of the British preferences before today. It is a happy coincidence.

  8. Being an American, I follow the American convention, except—and I’ve heard different claims about its correctness—when the quotation marks are used to mean that we writing about word or phrase itself instead of what it stands for. Somehow it just seems incorrect for me.

    For example: Native speakers of a language do not have an “accent”.
    Or is it?: …do not have an “accent.”

    Also, English is a world language. I really wish the US, UK, and all these other countries would get together set a single standard for punctuation and spelling. I don’t care if means even WE have to adopt some new conventions.

  9. I’m American, but I must say that I’ve always thought that the British method makes more sense. In the future, if anyone here corrects me on my stubborn adherence to British English, I’ll just tell them I was schooled in the UK.

  10. This is probably too late and a little silly, but in response to lawyerjourno: Punctuation was invented, because the alphabet by itself does not encode the entire speech signal.

    European languages use mechanisms such as tone, stress, and pauses to indicate sentence structure. They succeed at this only partially, but punctuation does help disambiguate a lot of sentences.

    BTW, the writing you write yourself might seem to make sense to you, because you have the intonation, etc. in your mind, that is, your mind is filling in information that does not appear in the writing. That’s why it’s better if a different person proofreads your writing.

  11. I’m still confused. How would you punctuate this? Quotation marks inside of the period or outside of the period? (American)

    The Broadway Hotel dates to 1910, and in 1994 it looked like it might be demolished in the interest of “progress”.

  12. I am a buff of modern usage, when it come to English language and writing style. How do I get my editor to accept “Jesus’s”, “Moses’s” and “James’s” as correct usage, if indeed it is?

  13. (sigh) The real way to write that makes the most sense is whatever way will be best understood or most pleasing to one’s readers. Because American-style punctuation has gone without causing confusion or errors for about a hundred and fifty years, then it has no real-world disadvantage when compared to to British-style.

    Think about it. British spelling doesn’t make people think that “centre” is pronounced “senn-treh,” does it?

  14. This article would be stronger if the American example were a phrase or a words-as-words or song title, etc. instead of a full sentence. Both British and American practices place final periods inside the quotation marks when quoting full sentences. (Yes, I see the comma before “he said,” etc. but it would still make things clearer to use an example equivalent to the British one.)

  15. I realize the subject matter is about punctuation, but I would like to point out an error in the NY Times article. They used ‘have got’ instead of ‘have’, because you would not have 2 active verbs together.

  16. Betty, while it does sound rather jarring in that context, it does make grammatical sense. In the U.K. people will almost always say they ‘have got’ something, in the same way they ‘have done’ something, because they have previously got it, but I think in America it’s more standard to just say ‘have’. I could be wrong, of course, but I’ve heard Americans correct people when they say “I’ve got a ____”.

  17. In the UK it is considered bad grammar to say “I have got something”. (Also note UK punctuation!).

    We would say “I have something”. You can say “I have got to go.”, but “I have got a dog.” is ungrammatical: it should be “I have a dog.”.

    “Gotten” is absent from UK vocabulary – that is an American invention, as is “snuck” for “sneaked” and “dove” for “dived”! These are ways in which American vocabulary has become sloppy over the years.

  18. I’m Canadian. I’m also a part-time copy-editor. I’ve found that the Canadian style is totally bi-polar; we mostly observe British conventions except when we do not. We seem to appropriate from the best of both worlds.

    American style:
    “Some folks,” the politician noted, “would describe themselves as neither Democrats nor Republicans, but as Independents.”

    British style:
    ‘Some folks’, the politician noted, ‘would describe themselves as neither Democrats nor Republicans, but as Independents’.

    Canadian style:
    “Some folks”, the politician noted, “would describe themselves as neither Democrats nor Republicans, but as Independents”.

    However, perusing major Canadian publications, there is an equal shot that you may read, “Some folks,” the politician noted, “would describe themselves as being neither Democrats nor Republicans, but as Independents.”

    I find commas within the quotation marks odd about the American style because there is no comma in the quote itself. The British style more accurately reflects what the politician actually said, which is that, “Some folks consider themselves…”, and not, “Some folks, consider themselves…”

  19. There is an exception to the British rule: If the quote is complete sentence and not just a comment, the period would go inside the quotation marks.

  20. I find the frequency of “quote” where it should be “quotation” irritating. The above postings frequently show this error. “Quote” is a verb. Things that are quoted are “quotations” not “quotes” and this distinction should be reinforced. It sets my teeth on edge every time I hear someone say “quote” or “quotes” for “quotation” or “quotation marks” — as well it should.

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