Skip to main content

Punctuating Quotations

Some time ago I was reading the manuscript of a new critique partner when a punctuation mark sent me into a line editing frenzy. That mark was a period inside a quotation mark at the end of a non-dialogue sentence. But, as it turned out, we were both correct (though on opposite sides of the globe).

Something that increasingly perplexes those of us who write using British English is the insistence by writers using American English on slipping unrelated punctuation into a quotation. So insistent, in fact, that it’s even been included in the Chicago Manual of Style as correct style however illogical it might seem to some of us.

Here’s an example:
N.Am English: Michael told me that he was too “busy.” (period within quote marks)

UK English: Michael told me that he was too “busy”. (full stop outside quote marks)
For those of us using UK English rules it is very easy to determine that the punctuation mark following “busy” should occur outside the quote marks. Move the quoted word(s) to the middle of the sentence – if there’s no punctuation involved when the quote occurs elsewhere in the sentence then the punctuation is part of the sentence as a whole, not the quoted section, and should fall outside the quote marks.
N.Am and UK English: Michael told me that he was too “busy” to join us for dinner.
However, a comma attached to the quotation in the middle of a sentence can stymie an unaware British English writer trying to write for a publication requiring Chicago Manual of Style rules:
N.Am English: Michael told me that he was too “busy,” but he would try to meet us another day.

UK English: Michael told me that he was too “busy”, but he would try to meet us another day.

One way to remember the North American rule is to realize that quotations are treated like dialogue (except when they actually occur within dialogue).
N.Am and UK: “Michael won’t be joining us,” Julie said. “He’s too ‘busy’.”
Note how both the comma and the period fall within the dialogue’s quotation marks (reminiscent of the N.AM rule) but that ‘busy’ doesn’t include the period here (similar to the UK rule) because it’s already contained in dialogue.

How about you? Have you come across this difference in British and North American usage? Has it affected how you write for international publications?

Elsa Neal Elsa Neal is a writer based in Melbourne, Australia. Visit her website to download her free mini report on the Ten Most Frustrating Grammar Rules and How to Remember Them. Read up more on Grammar and Punctuation or browse through her Resources for Writers.

Bookmark and Share


  1. Another detail that is so important. I had noticed that some folks were punctuating differently, but not being a grammar-girl, I wasn't sure why there was the difference you pointed out. Good to know.

  2. The UK rules simply make more sense - and I'm in the US! When writing informally, I follow UK rules, but when writing for publication I follow US rules, under protest. ;-)

  3. I have run into this problem as well. It is completely logical to have only the punctuation used in the original material inside of the quotation; adding punctuation from the rest of the sentence can only obscure what the quotation is actually saying. This is particularly frustrating for American students because we're required to follow American punctuation rules in most academic settings, even though they don't make much sense. Punctuating quotations was one of the most confusing things I learned in middle school. Now that I'm older, I usually follow British rules for punctuation in my non-academic work for the sake of clarity.

  4. Wow, you folks have an eye for "detail". Honestly, I didn't know there was a difference between the UK and US on this rule ... maybe my English teacher was a Brit, because that's the way I was instructed to deal with this situation. Of course, it usually didn't make much difference, because I'd made so many other mistakes before she got to end of my sentences that I'd already flunked the assignment.

  5. Another fun thing is publishing a bilingual book, which I just did in English and Spanish. Needless to say, sentence structure isn't the only difference. Adhering to the Spanish punctuation rules, particularly in quotations, proved to be an interesting challenge.

    Very pertinent post, Elsa. Thanks much!

  6. Wow, that's cool to find out the small yet big differences in the two English formatting styles.

  7. I've always thought UK works better but not necessairly looks better. I'm like Deb. I follow US but not liking it.

  8. I wasn't aware of the differences, either. Interesting!

  9. Thanks for your comments everyone.

    Maryann, thanks for your help with this post.

    HearWriteNow & Blood-Red Pencil

  10. I had an English teacher who taught me that the punctuation is always inside the when I read UK, I struggle a bit. You last example though, was an education for me. Thanks.

  11. I love this clear explanation, Elle--thanks!

  12. Actually, your last example is different in the US:

    “Michael won’t be joining us,” Julie said. “He’s too ‘busy.’”

    Periods and commas go inside the quotation marks. An exception: If you are using MLA style documentation and quoting from a source, you do this:

    "I am quoting from a source" (Source 211). :)

  13. I follow the U.S. rules, but I like the British rules. They do make sense. In my own writing, I follow American English; while editing, I go with the author's preference, as I should. ;)

  14. Such a small mark, but it makes such a big difference!
    Morgan Mandel

  15. I saw punctuation outside of the quotation marks, and I had some insecurity. For a Canadian writer attempting to bridge the gaps across markets is to simplify everything, cross your fingers, and sweat it out. The internet will eventually lead to some coherent style that we can all read comfortably.

  16. I'm American and I *hate* the American way of doing it. I even wrote a blog blog about it - What Writing Rules Do You Hate? :)

    It makes no sense to me to include punctuation in the quotes that don't belong. I used to do it the U.K. way in protest (and out of sheer stubbornness), but I'm trying to drill the American way into my head for professional reasons. *sigh*

  17. Speaking (well, writing) as an American, this is one that our cross-pond cousins got right, as seval others have pointed out. This is especially irksome in technical writing (e.g. in the computer software field), where the readeer may be expected to USE the quoted text. Inclusion of stray (wrong) punctuation from the quotING context, rather than the quotED text, normally renders the quoted text unusable.

    Although I usually tolerate arbitrary grammatical rules with good humor (e.g. not ending sentence with prepositions), this is one with which I refuse to cooperate.

  18. I've got a Brit crit partner. Run into little things like this all the time. We've learned to slide over the differences. And, when I comment on his subs, I've started automatically using his spelling for words like behaviour, etc.

    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

  19. I do quite a bit of editing and proofreading, so I noticed this difference when I read books printed in the UK. The UK way does make more sense, but the fact that most people don't know the difference has provided me a lot of billable proofreading hours! :)


Post a Comment

The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. If a glitch is preventing you from commenting, visit our Facebook page and drop your wise words there: Blood-Red Pencil on Facebook