Most people are aware of the spelling differences between British and American English. But did you know that there are punctuation differences, too? For example, three differences between British and American punctuation that you may want to keep in mind include:
- How we use quote marks and punctuation surrounding quote marks
- Use of the Oxford comma (or serial comma, as it is known in the US)
- How we punctuate acronyms and abbreviations
We’ll now look at how these work on either side of the Atlantic Ocean.
1. Quote Marks
The biggest difference between British and American punctuation is related to quotations. This covers two distinct issues:
- Whether to favour ‘single’ or “double” quotation marks
- Whether to place punctuation inside or outside of quotation marks
In British English, we typically use single quote marks for the main quote. We would then use double quote marks for a quote within a quote. But this is the other way around in American English:
British English: Smith (2001, p. 34) writes that witnesses ‘heard someone shout “Duck!” loudly’ before the explosion.
American English: Smith (2001, p. 34) writes that that witnesses “heard someone shout ‘Duck!’ loudly” before the explosion.
In addition, British English only places punctuation within quote marks if it is part of the original text. American punctuation rules, meanwhile, require all commas and full stops to be given within quote marks:
British English: Smith (2001, p.35) also reports that witnesses ‘suffered headaches’, as well as experiencing ‘feelings of nausea’.
American English: Smith (2001, p.35) also reports that witnesses “suffered headaches,” as well as experiencing “feelings of nausea.”
Here, for instance, we see that the British English version places the comma and full stop outside of the quote marks, which tells they were not originally part of the text being quoted.
2. The Oxford/Serial Comma
The Oxford comma (also known as the ‘serial comma’ in the US) is a comma placed before the last item in a list of three or more things. Sometimes, this can help ensure clarity. For instance:
I’m going out with my brothers, Tim and Dave.
This sentence is ambiguous. Is it a list of three items? Or are my brothers named Tim and Dave? We can clarify this instantly by adding an Oxford comma before ‘Dave’:
I’m going out with my brothers, Tim, and Dave.
Here, we can easily see that ‘my brothers’, ‘Tim’ and ‘Dave’ are all separate people. British and American English both use the Oxford comma like this, but they differ on when it is used:
- Typically, in British English, we only use an Oxford comma when a list would be unclear without one, such as in the example sentence above.
- In American English, it is standard to use an Oxford comma in all lists.
You will find exceptions to this rule, as some people have strong feelings about the Oxford comma. However, it remains a good general guideline to follow if you’re unsure when to use one in your own writing.
3. Full Stops After Titles
Finally, we have the use of full stops (or ‘periods’, if you’re American) after abbreviated titles. The difference between British and American punctuation here is that British English does not place a full stop after the titles ‘Mr’, ‘Mrs’ or ‘Ms’, whereas American English does:
British English: Mr and Mrs Douglas walked home.
American English: Mr. and Mrs. Douglas walked home.
In British English, we also omit the full stop when the shortened version of a title ends with the last letter of the full version. American English, meanwhile, requires a full stop for all abbreviations:
British English: Dr Douglas wrote a letter to Prof. Edwards.
American English: Dr. Douglas wrote a letter to Prof. Edwards.
As you can see above, though, British English does use a full stop when an abbreviation doesn’t include the last letter of the full term (e.g. such as when we shorten ‘Professor’ to ‘Prof.’).
Consistency Is King!
The rules above cover punctuation conventions in British and American English. These are, however, quite flexible. As such, if you want to use an Oxford comma in all your lists, feel free. You might upset a few patriotic pedants, but it is not wrong to use the Oxford comma in British English.
You do, however, need to be consistent. Thus, if you use single quote marks for the first quote in an essay, make sure to use the same style throughout. And if you write ‘USA’ without full stops once, don’t switch to ‘U.S.A.’ half way through the document. This will help ensure two things:
- Your writing looks professional and demonstrates attention to detail.
- Your reader will know exactly how punctuation is being used.
This applies to both British and American punctuation. And if you’d like help checking the punctuation in your written work, just let us know.