Punctuation in British and American English

united-states-2391371_640 This blog post is my assignment for the course English Grammar and Style by UQx & edX.

English is spoken by 1.39 billion people worldwide. Some of them are casual speakers, that only speak the language occasionally. About 800 million people are using the language more frequent. They speak English on a daily basis and are either native or bilingual speakers. Although all these speakers tend to understand each other well, there are localised differences. The most apparent differences are those in the use of words. Such as the British ‘anticlockwise’ vs the American ‘counterclockwise’. However, more characteristics set the localised versions of English apart, one of them being punctuation. 

The Serial or Oxford Comma

soldier-2639371_640 The serial or Oxford comma is the placed directly before the coordinating conjunction, in a series of three or more terms. Despite its British name, it is actually used less in Britain than in the United States. In American English, the serial comma is regarded as standard. There are a few major style guides that advice against it, such as the those of the New York Times and the Associated Press. Still, the majority of American style guides is in favour of the Oxford comma and recommends the use of it to prevent confusion. Thus in American English we would write:
‘Cats, dogs, and hamsters’.
And in British English we would write:
‘Cats, dogs and hamsters’.

Quotation and Punctuation inside quotation

soldier-1939385_640We can write down the spoken word in two ways; direct speech or reported speech. In direct speech, we use quotation marks. Such as:
‘I like taking this course’.
In reported speech quotation marks become unnecessary. Like in this example:
I said I liked taking this course.
The use of quotation marks for direct speech is customary in both British and American English. However, the quotation marks themselves differ. In Great Britain, one uses single quotation marks. In the United States, double quotation marks are the standard. In American English the above example would be written down like this:
“I like taking this course.”
The British English way is exactly like the first example:
‘I like taking this course’.
There is one exception to this rule. When we use direct speech within direct speech, the opposite is true. Like in the following American English example:
“I’m not a big fan of Trump, but when he said ‘The truth is I’m a modest person,’ it made me chuckle.”
In British English the above sentence would be written down as follows:
‘I’m not a big fan of Trump, but when he said “The truth is I’m a modest person”, it made me chuckle’.
girl-2771936_640 Now the above examples also demonstrate another difference between British and American English, namely the use of interpunction within direct speech. As we can see in the given examples, it is custom within the United States to place interpunction inside the quotation marks. The sentence is quoted as a whole, rather than the quote being part of the sentence. In Great Britain punctuation is placed outside the quotation marks. The only exception to this rule is when multiple sentences or parts of sentences are quoted. In that case, one can place the punctuation of every sentence, minus the last full stop or comma, inside the quotation marks.

Abbreviations and Contractions

Contractions such as Mr, Mrs and Dr require a full stop in American English. As do abbreviations like Ave, St and Prof. In American English all of the above would be written as:
• Mr.
• Mrs.
• Dr.
• Ave.
• St.
• Prof.
In British English, this rule doesn’t apply when the last letter of the abbreviation or contraction resembles the final letter of the full word. The above example would look as follows in British English:
• Mr
• Mrs
• Dr
• Ave
• St
• Prof.

Final thoughts

The differences between British and American English are constantly evolving. Especially with the use of internet and the rise of English speakers worldwide, the language changes faster than ever before. The younger generations may already think of this style guide as obsolete and old-fashioned. As writers, it is our duty to know and understand our audience so that we can address them in their own language. Therefore I have a somewhat ambiguous relationship with style guides. They are great tools to authors that take away any doubt and help to maintain a consistent quality. However, when not revised every so often, the contents will become obsolete and harm the quality instead of contributing towards it. This is why I recommend checking at least two style sources (like a website, stylebook or guide) before writing for a specific group. Also, I want to make clear that I’ve written about American and British English because these are the two types of English I have to work with. It’s important to know that more localisations of English exist, such as Australian and Canadian English. These varieties each have their own rules for interpunction.

Consulted Works

• Crystal, David. The Cambridge Encyclopaedia of the English Language. Cambridge University Press, 2014.
• Strunk, William, Jr., and E. B. White. The Elements of Style. 4th ed. Pearson, 1999.
• Marsh, David, and Amelia Hodson. “Guardian and Observer Style Guide: O.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 05 Nov. 2015. Web. 20 Mar. 2018.
• University, Oxford. “Style Guide.” Oxford University, n.d. Web. 20 Mar. 2018.

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