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  • Galina Blankenship

Separated by a Common Language: British vs. American English (Quotations)

Updated: Jul 11



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 (1900) by Edmund Leighton


Direct Speech, Quotations, and Quotation Marks



  • 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: A quotation within a quotation:


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


Original quotation of AmE: I heard Keep out being shouted.

Original quotation of BrE: 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.



 

AmE & BrE: Similarities: Quotation Marks Combined with Other Marks


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.


A sentence with a direct speech clause is a complex sentence, whose main clause is the so-called speaker tag (he said, she said), with the direct speech clause being subordinate.


The speaker tag is marked with a comma intonation (+ pause), shown with a comma in writing.


 

AmE & BrE: Double Quotation



👉 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.



​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: A quoted interrogative sentence within a declarative sentence:


Original quotation: What, me worry?

Main 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: A quoted declarative sentence within an interrogative sentence:


Original quotation: I’ll help out.

Main clause: Did you say […]?


AmE: Did you say, “I’ll help out”?

BrE: Did you say, ‘I’ll help out’?


 

Example: A quoted exclamatory sentence within a declarative sentence:


Original quotation: Hello!

Main 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: A quoted declarative sentence within a exclamatory sentence:


Original quotation: I am quitting.

Main 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: A quoted interrogative sentence within an interrogative sentence:


Original quotation: Will Joe be there?

Main clause: Why did Mary ask […]?


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

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


 

Example: A quoted exclamatory sentence within an interrogative sentence:


Original quotation: Watch out!

Main clause: Who yelled […]?


AmE: Who yelled Watch out!”

BrE: Who yelled Watch out!’


 


AmE & BrE: No Internal Interrupting Period



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


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.

Main 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?

Main clause (speaker tag): 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.

Main clause (speaker tag): He said.


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

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


 

AmE vs. BrE: Differences

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



Introductory Quotation:

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.

Main clause (speaker tag): 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:


Direct speech clause: I love you very much!

Main clause (speaker tag): He said.


AmE: I love you very much!” he said.

BrE: I love you very much!’ he said.

 
Closing Quotation:

1. With a closing quotation, the comma after the speaker tag specifies a comma intonation (+ pause). The quotation’s period takes precedence over the main 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!’

 
⬪ Interrupting Quotation:

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


💥 The comma intonation before the speaker tag 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 speaker tag does not belong to the original quotation.

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


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

Main clause (speaker tag): He said.


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

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

The comma before the speaker tag 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.



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.



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.

Main 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:



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

  • ​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 vs. Sentence Fragments


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


Example: A quoted exclamation within an interrogative sentence:


Original quotation: Fire!

Main clause: Which of you shouted […]?


AmE: Which of you shouted Fire!’?”

BrE: Which of you shouted Fire!”?’


 

AmE vs. BrE: 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: A quotation with an internal semicolon is interrupted by a speaker tag at the place of the semicolon:


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


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


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


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: 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: 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: 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: 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: 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: An exclamatory sentence ends with a title:


Original quotation: Cities Are for Walking

Main sentence: She loved the article […]!


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

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


 

Example: An interrogative sentence ends with a title:


Original quotation: Neighbours

Main sentence: 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: 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: A quoted complete sentence is interrupted by a speaker tag:


Original quotation: Go home to your father.


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

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


 

Example: A quoted complete sentence with internal comma is interrupted by a speaker tag:


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


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

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


 

Example: A quotation, which contains two complete declarative sentences, is interrupted by a speaker tag:


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


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


AmE quotation: Have you any idea whatred mercury is?

BrE 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: A quotations with internal quotation and a semicolon:


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

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


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