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  • Writer's pictureGalina Blankenship

British English and American English: The Use of Quotation Marks

Updated: Jun 17, 2023

Separated by a Common Language: British English (BrE) and American English (AmE)

In general, in both American English (AmE) and British English (BrE), quotation marks are used to mark:

  • Direct speech (someone’s exact words)

  • Words of special emphasis

  • Titles of literary and artistic works

  • Sneer and irony remarks


The painting "God Speed" by Edmund Leighton
"God Speed" by Edmund Leighton

British English and American English: The Use of Quotation Marks


British English and American English: Quotation Marks vs. Inverted Commas


While Americans prefer the term quotations marks, Brits use the term inverted commas. Another difference is that AmE uses double quotes, while BrE prefers single quotes.



Quotations Within Quotations


AmE predominantly uses double marks “…”, while usage in BrE is divided, though British manuals tend to favor single marks ‘...’. AmE and BrE use both kinds of quotes for formatting quotations within quotations.


Example 1: A quotation within a quotation:


Whichever kind of quotes is not used for the main quotation is then used for the quotation within:


AmE (quoted material): I heard Keep out being shouted.

BrE (quoted material): I heard Keep out being shouted.


AmE (double, single): I heard Keep out being shouted,” he said.

BrE (single, double): I heard Keep out being shouted,’ he said.


 

British English and American English: Quotation Marks Combined with Other Marks and Ban on Double Punctuation



Like parentheses, quotation marks can co-occur with other marks of punctuation, with many similarities and some significant differences between AmE and BrE. The similarities can be formulated as a few general rules, applicable to both AmE and BrE.



British English (BrE) and American English (AmE): Similarities


👉 Rule No. 1: Avoid double punctuation.

Punctuation marks follow a certain hierarchy: An exclamation point is the strongest, then comes a question mark, which is followed by a period:


comma < dash < colon < semicolon < period < question mark < exclamation point

weaker << ----------------------<<-----------------------<< stronger


If a quotation is a complete sentence (a declarative statement, a question, or an exclamation) and falls at the end of a larger sentence, avoid double punctuation: Choose the stronger of the marks.


If the same mark of punctuation is required for both the quotation and the sentence as a whole, the quotation’s mark takes precedence.


icon with the number "1"

​To avoid double punctuation in the end of a sentence, choose either the quotation’s terminal mark (if the terminal marks are identical) or the strongest of the marks (if the terminal marks are different).

Example 2: A quoted interrogative sentence within a declarative sentence:


Original quotation: What, me worry?

Reporting clause: My father's catchphrase is […].


AmE: My father’s catchphrase is What, me worry?”

BrE: My father’s catchphrase is What, me worry?’

 

Example 3: A quoted declarative sentence within an interrogative sentence:


Original quotation: I’ll help out.

Reporting clause: Did you say […]?


AmE: Did you say, “I’ll help out”?

BrE: Did you say, ‘I’ll help out’?

 

Example 4: A quoted exclamatory sentence within a declarative sentence:


Original quotation: Hello!

Reporting clause: Every time you see her, Paula screams […].


AmE: Every time you see her, Paula screams, Hello!”

BrE: Every time you see her, Paula screams, Hello!’

 

Example 5: A quoted declarative sentence within a exclamatory sentence:


Original quotation: I am quitting.

Reporting clause: I cannot believe he said […]!


AmE: I cannot believe he said, “I am quitting”!

BrE: I cannot believe he said, ‘I am quitting’!

 

Example 6: A quoted interrogative sentence within an interrogative sentence:


Original quotation: Will Joe be there?

Reporting clause: Why did Mary ask […]?


AmE: Why did Mary ask, “Will Joe be there?”

BrE: Why did Mary ask, ‘Will Joe be there?’

 

Example 7: A quoted exclamatory sentence within an interrogative sentence:


Original quotation: Watch out!

Reporting clause: Who yelled […]?


AmE: Who yelled Watch out!”

BrE: Who yelled Watch out!’

 
👉 Rule No. 2: The main clause cannot have an internal period (full stop), while the direct-speech clause can.

an icon with the number "2"

If a quotation is a declarative statement, its terminal period (full stop) is replaced with a comma in the sentence.

💥 The terminal mark (period) of the direct speech clause cannot be duplicated in the main clause and is therefore replaced with a comma:


Original quotation: I don’t know.

Reporting clause: She said and stormed out of the room.


AmE: I don’t know,” she said and stormed out of the room.

BrE: I don’t know,’ she said and stormed out of the room.

 

💥 The direct speech clause, however, can have an internal period (full stop):


Original quotation: I don’t know. Does it matter?

Reporting clause: She replied […]


AmE: She replied, “I don’t know. Does it matter?”

BrE: She replied, ‘I don’t know. Does it matter?’

 

Original quotation: Yes, we will. It’s a good idea.

Reporting clause (comment): He said.


AmE: Yes,” he said, “we will. It’s a good idea.”

BrE: Yes,’ he said, ‘we will. It’s a good idea.’

 

British English and American English: Differences


Rule No. 2 specifically applies to sentences with introductory and interrupting quotations, with some AmE and BrE differences:


Introductory Quotations

1. If the introductory quotation is a declarative statement, its terminal mark (period) is turned into a comma, while the comma intonation between the clauses is omitted to prevent double intonation.


Original quotation: I love you very much.

Reporting clause (comment): He said.


AmE: I love you very much,” he said.

BrE: I love you very much,’ he said.


2. If the introductory quotation is an exclamatory or interrogative statement:


Original quotation: I love you very much!

Reporting clause (comment): He said.


AmE: I love you very much!” he said.

BrE: I love you very much!’ he said.

 
Closing Quotations

1. With a closing quotation, the comma after the reporting clause signals a comma intonation (+ pause). The quotation’s period takes precedence over the reporting clause’s period:


AmE: He said, “I love you very much.”

BrE: He said, ‘I love you very much.’


2. If the closing quotation is exclamatory or interrogative:


AmE: He said, “I love you very much!”

BrE: He said, ‘I love you very much!’

 
Interrupted Quotations

If the quotation is interrupted by the reporting clause, the interrupting reporting clause is marked with comma intonations on both sides, marked in writing with enclosing commas.


💥 The comma intonation before the reporting clause is placed outside the closing punctuation mark in BrE and inside the closing punctuation mark in AmE:


AmE: I love you,” he said, “very much.”

BrE: I love you’, he said, ‘very much.’

The comma before the reporting clause does not belong to the original quotation.

💥 If the quotation has internal punctuation, both AmE and BrE have the comma before the reporting clause placed inside the closing punctuation mark:


Original quotation: I love you, Maya, very much.

Reporting clause (comment): He said.


AmE: I love you, Maya,” he said, “very much.”

BrE: I love you, Maya,’ he said, ‘very much.’

The comma before the reporting clause belongs to the original quotation.
 

American English: Convenience & Aesthetics


👉 Rule No. 3: In AmE, always keep a comma or a period inside the closing quotation mark, even if it does not belong to the original quotation.

This rule holds true for any kinds of quotations: labels, definitions, titles of works, citations or sentence fragments, and complete sentences:


AmE (label): Sign your name wherever you see an X.”

AmE (label): The package was labeled Fragile,” but that meant nothing to your delivery crew.


AmE (definition): In Spain, one with free time will dar un paseo, literally give a stroll,” until it is time to resume the workday.


AmE (title): My favorite poem is Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven.”

AmE (title): Sandor’s study, “Criteria for Evaluating Staff Efficiency,” is now available online.


an icon of the U.S. flag

American English always puts a period or a comma inside the closing quotation mark.

AmE (citation): Selma thinks the magazine looks fresh and crisp.”

AmE (citation): All she said was No.”


AmE (direct speech): Let’s go over the details again,” she said.

AmE (direct speech & label): Mr. Poston said, “Please let me see all the orders marked Rush.’”

 

British English: Logic & Consistency


👉 Rule No. 4: In BrE, punctuate according to the logic of the sentence.

If the quoted material is not a complete sentence, then a comma or a period should remain outside the closing quotation mark. In other words, a punctuation mark (e.g., an exclamation point, question mark, dash, or parentheses) should remain outside the closing quotation mark unless it belongs to the quotation.


an icon of the British flag

According to Fowler's A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, ​in British English, all signs of punctuation used with words in quotation marks must be placed according to the sense (logic), meaning that only those punctuation marks that appear in the original quoted material should be included within quotation marks.

BrE (label): Sign your name wherever you see an ‘X’.

BrE (label): The package was labeled Fragile’, but that meant nothing to your delivery crew.

BrE (definition): In Spain, one with free time will dar un paseo, literally give a stroll’, until it is time to resume the workday.


BrE (title): My favorite poem is Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven’.

BrE (title): Sandor’s study, ‘Criteria for Evaluating Staff Efficiency’, is now available online.


BrE (citation): Selma thinks the magazine looks fresh and crisp’.

BrE (citation): All she said was No’.


BrE (direct speech): Let’s go over the details again’, she said.

BrE (direct speech & label): Mr. Poston said, ‘Please let me see all the orders marked Rush”’.

 

Logic, Logics, Logistics


Nothing is more personal than logic! Expectedly, punctuating according to logic has its caveats.


👉 Rule No. 5: For BrE publications, follow the BrE conventions to punctuate sentence fragments, but AmE for direct speech sentences with complete quotations.

In theory, the position of the period depends on whether the quoted sentence is a complete one. However, it is not always clear whether a quotation is a complete sentence.


Let's consider an example:


Original quotation: It cannot be done.

Reporting clause: I have often heard you say […]


The quotation seems to be a complete sentence that starts with a capital letter. So, many BrE publishers (especially in fiction and journalism) follow a rule of thumb that, if the quotation contains a grammatically complete sentence starting with a capital letter, the period should remain inside the closing quote (as in AmE):


👉 BrE (preferred in fiction): I have often heard you say It cannot be done.’


Yet, one can argue that the main sentence suggests an allusion (demonstrated by the lack of a comma intonation after say) rather than a direct quotation, which is how the British Standard BS 5261–1:2000 recommends interpreting it, especially for nonfiction texts:


👉 BrE (standard & nonfiction): I have often heard you say It cannot be done’.


Furthermore, in much modern British fiction and journalism, a comma is formatted as in AmE:


👉 BrE (preferred in fiction): BrE: I love you,’ he said, ‘very much.’


To put it shortly:


an icon depicting the British flag

  • If a quotation is an incomplete sentence (label, citation, title, definition, etc.), follow the BrE style (according to the logic of the sentence).


an icon depicting the U.S. flag

  • ​If a quotation is a grammatically complete sentence starting with a capital letter, follow the AmE style (especially for fiction publications).

Compare:


BrE (standard, nonfiction): Father’, he said, ‘is looking well today, as if nothing happened’.

BrE (fiction): Father,’ he said, ‘is looking well today, as if nothing happened.’

BrE (standard, nonfiction): Father is looking well today,’ he said, ‘as if nothing happened’.
BrE (fiction): Father is looking well today,’ he said, ‘as if nothing happened.’
 

Sentences and Sentence Fragments


Be careful not to confuse a complete sentence with a sentence fragment:


Example 8: A quoted exclamation within an interrogative sentence:


Original quotation: Fire!

Reporting clause 1: Which of you shouted […]?

Reporting clause 2: The commander asked [...].


AmE: The commander asked, Which of you shouted Fire!’?”

BrE: The commander asked, Which of you shouted Fire!”?’

 

British English and American English: Internal Semicolon/Colon


Another difference between AmE and BrE is the treatment of a semicolon in the middle of the quoted sentence.


👉 Rule No. 6: BrE tends to reflect the quotation's internal semicolon in the direct speech sentence (if interrupted in that place), whereas AmE prefers to replace it with either a comma or a period.

Example 9: A quotation with an internal semicolon is interrupted by a reporting clause at the place of the semicolon:


Original quotation: It cannot be done; we must give up.

Reporting clause: He said.


AmE: It cannot be done,” he said. “We must give up.”

AmE: It cannot be done,” he said, “we must give up.”


BrE: It cannot be done,’ he said; ‘we must give up.’

 

Example 10: A quotation with an internal colon is interrupted somewhere else:


Original quotation: The truth was simple”: Dan was guilty.

Reporting clause: She said.


AmE: The truth,” she said, was simple’: Dan was guilty.”

BrE: The truth’, she said, was simple”: Dan was guilty.’

 

More Examples: Quotations as Words, Phrases, or Complete Sentences



Example 11: The quotation contains a grammatically complete declarative sentence:


AmE: She said, You are just in time.”

BrE: She said, You are just in time.’

 

Example 12: A quotation contains a grammatically complete declarative sentence:


AmE: You are just in time,” she said.

BrE: You are just in time,’ she said.

 

Example 13: A declarative sentence with an interrupting label:


AmE: He couldn’t spell mnemonic,” and therefore failed to reach the finals.

BrE: He couldn’t spell mnemonic’, and therefore failed to reach the finals.

 

Example 14: A declarative sentence ends with a quoted phrase:


AmE: He’d apparently just been trying to help one of my patients.”

BrE: He’d apparently just been trying to help one of my patients’.

 

Example 15: A quotation of a proverb:


AmE: He believed in the proverb Dead men tell no tale.”


BrE (fiction): He believed in the proverb Dead men tell no tale.’ BrE (nonfiction): He believed in the proverb Dead men tell no tale’.

 

Example 16: An exclamatory sentence ends with a title:


Title: Cities Are for Walking

Main clause: She loved the article […]!


AmE: She loved the article Cities Are for Walking”!

BrE: She loved the article Cities Are for Walking’!

 

Example 17: An interrogative sentence ends with a title:


Title: Neighbours

Main clause: Did you watch the last episode of […]?


AmE: Did you watch the last episode of Neighbours”?

BrE: Did you watch the last episode of Neighbours’?

 

Example 18: A sentence ends with a quotation that has an abbreviation in the end:


AmE: Gloria said, You can call as early as 6:30 a.m.”

BrE: The article read, She also kept dogs, cats, birds, etc.’

 

Example 19: A quoted complete sentence is interrupted by a reporting clause:


Original quotation: Go home to your father.

Reporting clause (comment): He said.


AmE: Go home,” he said,“to your father.”

BrE: Go home’, he said, ‘to your father.’

 

Example 20: A quoted complete sentence with internal comma is interrupted by a reporting clause:


Original quotation: Father, you’re looking well today.

Reporting clause (comment): He said.


AmE: Father,” he said, “you’re looking well today.”

BrE: Father,’ he said, ‘you’re looking well today.’

 

Example 21: A quotation, which contains two complete declarative sentences, is interrupted by a reporting clause:


Original quotation: I need to visit the mall. The party is tomorrow, but I have no balloons.

Reporting clause (comment): Aunt Emma said.


AmE: I need to visit the mall,” said Aunt Emma. The party is tomorrow, but I have no balloons.”

BrE: I need to visit the mall,’ said Aunt Emma. The party is tomorrow, but I have no balloons.’

 

Example 22: A quoted sentence with a reference in parentheses:


AmE: As Oliver wrote, “No single organism can survive that sort of assault” (56).

BrE: As Oliver wrote, ‘No single organism can survive that sort of assault’ (56).

 

Example 23: A quoted sentence with a reference in parentheses:


AmE: Oliver wrote, “No single organism can survive that sort of assault (56), but this microbe proved him wrong.

BrE: Oliver wrote, ‘No single organism can survive that sort of assault (56), but this microbe proved him wrong.

 

Example 24: A quotations with internal quotation and a semicolon:


AmE original quotation: Have you any idea whatred mercury is?

BrE original quotation: Have you any idea whatred mercuryis?


AmE: Have you any idea,” he said, “whatred mercury is?”

BrE: Have you any idea’, he said, ‘what red mercury is?’

 

Example 25: A quotations with internal quotation and a semicolon:


AmE original quotation: A conviction was inevitable”; Dan would go to jail.

BrE original quotation: A conviction was inevitable’; Dan would go to jail.


AmE: A conviction,” she said, “was inevitable’; Dan would go to jail.”

BrE: A conviction’, she said, ‘was inevitable”; Dan would go to jail.’

 

Example 26: A quotations with internal ellipsis:


Note that, when used emphatically (as a marker of hesitation or a trailing thought), ellipsis does not form double punctuation.


Original quotation: Um um….

Reporting clause: Charles said […].


AmE: Um um…,” said Charles.

BrE: Um um…,’ said Charles.

 

a flower of red and brown colors





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